Circumstantial Evidence: Why Do People Think Its Lousy ?

Posted By Michael R. Varble || 18-Nov-2013

In today's blog post, I wanted to discuss circumstantial evidence and why people think it lousy. Is it really lousy evidence ? Why does it have a bad reputation ? Is it helpful or is it really as bad as many people think ?

So what is circumstantial evidence ? First, everyone should know what "evidence" is before discussing circumstantial evidence. Evidence is testimony of witnesses about what they saw, heard, smelled, or did under the relevant circumstances. Evidence also includes documents, photographs, medical records, school records, diagnostic films like x-rays or MRI films and other physical objects like cars, medical instruments, a gun and all of them are considered proof of facts. So how do we, as attorneys define circumstantial evidence ? Well, direct evidence is evidence of what a witness saw, heard, smelled, or did which, if believed by a jury, is proof of a fact. Circumstantial evidence is evidence of a fact which does not directly prove a fact in dispute, but which permits a reasonable inference or conclusion that the fact exists.

Lets put these descriptions into context. Lets say that someone spilled a glass of water and you, as a plaintiff or an attorney, need to prove that the person who spilled the glass of water is the defendant in the case. Well, direct evidence of the defendant spilling the glass of water would be a witness who saw the defendant spilling the glass of water. Circumstantial evidence of the defendant spilling a glass of water would be that the defendant was handed a glass of water by the plaintiff, that the defendant was the only person in the room where the glass of water was found spilled by the defendant between the time that the plaintiff handed the defendant the glass of water and the plaintiff found the spilled glass of water, that the plaintiff heard the glass of water hit the floor in a room with only one entrance and the plaintiff saw the defendant walk out of the room right after plaintiff heard the glass hit the floor, and plaintiff walked into the room to see the broken glass that he handed to the defendant on the floor with water on the floor. Do you think a jury could draw the inference from these facts that the defendant spilled the glass of water ? Uh, I think so.

The facts in the prior paragraph that the allow a reasonable person to draw the inference that the defendant spilled the glass of water are considered circumstantial evidence. As I refer to it, its all the information around the event that allows a juror to draw a conclusion. So, is circumstantial evidence really that bad ? Well, under the pattern jury instructions in New York, the Courts are directed to instruct jurors to give circumstantial evidence the same, more or less weight than direct evidence. In light of the example provided in this blog post, and considering how the Courts treat circumstantial evidence, I would have to conclude that those in the public who think that circumstantial evidence is lousy, are sorely mistaken.

In fact, I would argue that most evidence in jury trials is circumstantial and, without it, most of the victims of negligence and the victims of crimes would be unable to seek remedies before our Courts. Finger prints are circumstantial evidence. DNA is circumstantial evidence. Most witness testimony is circumstantial evidence. Circumstantial evidence is normally only used if the inference to be drawn by the jury is logically compelling and, if it isn't logically compelling, the evidence will probably not be permitted by the Court. Circumstantial evidence must still provide a reasonable basis for the conclusion that a plaintiff or an attorney is asking a jury to reach so it has to be relevant and Courts generally do not allow relevant evidence into a record. So, in short, circumstantial evidence should not get such a bad reputation. Its just as useful as direct evidence and often times, it is more important than direct evidence because people often find witness testimony unreliable.

As I always say, I hope our readers do not need to be a plaintiff, but I know it happens. As a result, if you are injured or someone in your family has suffered an injury as a result of another person's negligence, please give us a call for a free consultation at 1.800.900.6204. We can deal with circumstantial evidence and any other type of evidence to get you the results you deserve. Our attorneys have over 150 combined years of experience. We appear in the Courts of all the counties of the Hudson Valley daily and we will fight for you.

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