Injury Law Glossary

Definition of Burden of Proof

Burden of proof is a phrase we often hear on television and in movies, but what does it really mean?

Burden of proof is the responsibility of a person or organization to prove or disprove a fact. Basically, whoever has the burden of proof needs to prove that what they’re saying is true. If you don’t have the burden of proof, you don’t have to prove that you are telling the truth. You only have to prove that the other side isn’t, or is mistaken.

In the United States, the burden of proof is different in criminal and civil courts.

Burden of Proof in Criminal Cases

In criminal cases, the burden of proof rests on the prosecution. This usually includes a representative from the District Attorney’s office, a State Attorney, or a U.S. Attorney. The person being accused of a crime is the defendant in this case. The prosecution has to prove that the defendant did what they are being accused of. The defendant’s team can provide information that disproves or calls into question the argument made by the prosecution.

For example, imagine a defendant has been accused of theft. The prosecution’s case says that the defendant broke into a store at 10 PM and stole an item. The prosecution has to provide any proof that supports their case. The judge and/or jury will then decide whether the prosecution has proven their case beyond a reasonable doubt. That is, the prosecution has provided so much evidence that no reasonable person could doubt that what they are saying is true. 

On the other hand, the defendant can provide proof that the prosecution’s theory is wrong. For example, perhaps the defendant was in a club from 7 PM to midnight, and twenty people can vouch for this alibi. That fact could introduce reasonable doubt and sway the judge or jury to decide that the prosecution’s case hasn’t been proven.

Burden of Proof in Civil and Personal Injury Cases

A civil court case is between two people or organizations. Personal injury cases are typically civil cases. The burden of proof is different in civil cases than in criminal cases.

The person who brings a civil suit is called the plaintiff; the person who the suit is brought against is the defendant. In civil cases, the plaintiff has to prove their case not beyond a reasonable doubt but to a preponderance of the evidence. That is, they have to prove that it’s more likely than not that the defendant did something that requires them to pay the plaintiff damages. 

This is a much lower standard than proof beyond a reasonable doubt. A defendant can face both criminal and civil charges, and the burden of proof can mean that they are judged not guilty of the criminal charge but are found responsible in the civil case.

Burden of Proof in the O.J. Simpson Case

This famously happened in the O.J. Simpson case. The prosecution in his criminal case did not prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. That is, the jury believed that a reasonable person would not be entirely convinced by the evidence offered. Simpson was then charged in a civil case by the family of one of the people he was accused of killing. He was found responsible in that case because the jury only had to determine if it was more likely than not that Simpson had committed the crime. Since he was acquitted in his criminal case, he didn’t face jail time for that crime. However, he did have to pay a large amount of money after losing his civil case.


Burden of proof is a difficult concept to fully understand, and you may have questions about how it applies in your individual case. Your attorney will be able to answer these and many more questions for you.