What is a Prima Facie Case of Negligence?

Prima facie is Latin for “on the face of it” or “at first sight.”  It is used for a belief that is accepted as correct until proven otherwise.  This is often important because it creates an assumption that will be treated as fact unless specifically rebutted.

So what is a prima facie case?  A prima facie case means that a fact has been sufficiently established that leads to a presumption unless rebutted or disproven.

Lawyers usually like to use Latin words in law to feel important. But this one is one of the more common Latin terms that is a part of the lexicon of most lawyers in Maryland, even those that do not know the legal meaning of prima facie.  A prima facie case presents enough evidence for the plaintiff to win their personal injury case, barring any defenses or additional evidence presented by the defendant that got by that “first sight.”

Maryland’s appellate courts and our state legislature sometimes use the term to mean “compelling evidence” that is so compelling that it shifts the burden of persuasion to the opposing party.  One term frequently used to describe this is a rebuttable presumption.

The meaning of this is that the fact finder is told by the judge to assume the fact is true unless there is sufficient evidence produced to overturn the presumption.

This has great meaning in a trial. If you have evidence that creates a rebuttable presumption on the core of the lawsuit, that is often enough to get the case to a jury without the need for further evidence.

In 1924, the Maryland Court of Appeals (which is our supreme court) cited Jones’ Commentaries on Evidence, to explain what this Latin term means.

“Discrimination must be exercised in using the terms ‘burden of proof’ and ‘weight of evidence.’ While the burden of proof remains on the party affirming a fact in support of his case, and is not changed in any aspect of the case, except by legal presumption, the weight of evidence shifts from side to side in the progress of the trial, according to the nature and strength of the evidence offered in support or denial of the main fact to be established.

During the progress of a trial it often happens that a party gives evidence tending to establish his allegation, sufficient, it may be, to establish it prima facie, and it is sometimes said that the burden of proof is then shifted. 

All that is meant by this is that there is a necessity for evidence to answer the prima facie case or it will prevail; but the burden of maintaining the affirmative of the issue involved in the action is upon the party alleging the fact which constitutes the issue, and this burden remains throughout the trial” (emphasis added).

In Stanley v. State, a 1988 case, Maryland’s high court said that prima facie means “the establishment of a legally mandatory, rebuttable presumption.”

This Latin phrase is sometimes misspelled prima facia. Many Maryland lawyers make this mistake in pleadings and briefs and it is not good.  There was an unreported appellate opinion last year where the court seemed to bend over backward to mock the lawyer by quoting the brief and using “[sic]” (although they did win the appeal).

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