Understanding how circumstantial evidence factors into personal injury and wrongful death cases first requires knowing why such cases are brought and how the principle of legal liability operates.
An accident victim or their family files a personal injury or wrongful death claim in order to secure compensation for the economic losses, physical pain and emotional and mental suffering they suffered. The compensation can come in the form of an insurance settlement or a civil trial jury award. In either situation, receiving compensation always requires showing that the person or company named as the respondent to the claim caused the injury or death.
The respondent is the defendant in the case. They have legal liability for compensating an injured or deceased claimant (or plaintiff) when evidence shows that their negligence or recklessness led to the harm suffered by the claimant.
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A person or company can have liability because it acted in certain ways or because it failed to act as normal care and caution would dictate. Consider the following examples
- A driver who failed to slow down and stop while approaching a red light was negligent.
- A drunk driver could be considered reckless.
- A surgeon who committed an avoidable error that injures a patient was negligent.
- A business owner who failed to properly install a shelving unit that collapsed on a customer was negligent.
- A product manufacturer that omitted warnings about known risks and dangers was negligent.
This list is far from complete, but the examples indicate what a claimant and their personal injury or wrongful death attorney must prove in order to secure a settlement or win a jury award.
Direct Evidence Is the Gold Standard
Broadly speaking, substantiating personal injury and wrongful death claims demands the presentation of direct and circumstantial evidence. The more evidence of both types that point to the negligence or recklessness of the respondent, the better.
Direct evidence consists of what people can see, hear and clearly document. Traffic camera footage, product packing, and written rules and regulations are examples of direct evidence that might be used in a personal injury or wrongful death case. It literally shows what did or should have happened.
This type of evidence is strong and convincing. Even though arguments can be made regarding interpretations of direct evidence, its existence will not be doubted.
Never Believe the Myth That Circumstantial Evidence Is Weak
Circumstantial evidence is not the opposite of direct evidence. Rather, circumstantial implies what happened. It consists of photographs, eyewitness testimony, expert analyses and accident reconstructions. Viewing circumstantial evidence allows an insurance claims adjuster or jury member to draw inferences about how what the respondent did and what happened to the claimant.
The use of circumstantial evidence rests on a legal principle called res ipsa loquitur, which is typically translated as “the thing speaks for itself.” Invoking this principle allows the claimant in a personal injury or wrongful death case to make the argument that the harms suffered would not have occurred except for the respondent acting negligently or recklessly.
A classic example of convincing circumstantial evidence is footprints in the snow. You did not see anyone walk by, but you know someone went this way because the footprints exist. The brand and size of the passerby’s shoes may also be obvious.
In the context of a personal injury case stemming from a car crash, picture an intersection that lacks traffic cameras. Two cars collide, and it seems obvious that one of the drivers ran a red light. Inferences about which driver that was can be drawn from skid mark analyses, pictures of damage to the vehicles, a reconstruction that shows the angle of impact and statements from witnesses.