The burden of proof is one of the most complicated rules in Pennsylvania’s court system. Understanding the burden of proof presents two issues: defining the standard of care that all health care givers must fulfill and what level of proof must the plaintiff produce to prevail. Over the years, Pennsylvania’s courts have expressed a number of answers to these questions. These answers are now distilled into commonly accepted formulations.
Defining the standard of care
In Pennsylvania, as in most states, the plaintiff can prevail only by proving that the defendant’s actions did not live up to the standard of care used by medical professionals practicing in the same geographic area as the defendant. This standard of care requires the plaintiff to prove that the defendant failed to follow the procedures used by other medical professionals in treating the same or a similar condition. This standard is used to judge the defendant’s conduct from diagnosis to treatment to prognosis. The plaintiff will prevail if he or she proves that the health care provider deviated from the standard of care at any point in this chain of events.
How much evidence is enough?
The familiar statue of Justice holding aloft the scales of justice offers a helpful metaphor. Each party is assigned a single pan and must place its evidence only in that pan. If at the conclusion of the trial the scales tilt toward the plaintiff, the plaintiff has prevailed. If the scale tips toward the defendant, the defendant has prevailed. To state the rule differently, in order to win, the plaintiff must prove by the greater weight of the evidence that the defendant has violated the standard of care. The defendant, to prevail, must place enough evidence on the scale to cause it to dip in his or her direction.
The relationship between the standard of care and burden of proof can be very complex. Anyone contemplating a lawsuit against a medical professional for malpractice should consult a capable medical practice attorney for advice. An experienced lawyer can provide an analysis and evaluation of the evidence, suggest legal arguments to support a case, and provide an estimate of the likelihood of recovering damages for additional and future medical expenses, loss of income and general damages for pain and suffering.