In general terms, evidence is the way that you decide the truth or falsity of a claim (other than the use of pure logic). In law, evidence is the means by which a court determines the truth or falsity of a particular legal claim.
For example, a court might rely on the testimony of a police officer and photographs of tire skid marks to establish that a defendant caused a car accident. Evidence also matters in settlement negotiations, because it indicates the strength of your personal injury resources. This can tell you whether to continue settlement negotiations or go to trial.
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Rules of Evidence: Sources
Courts will not accept all evidence. Instead, a court will accept only evidence that complies with the applicable evidence code. In Florida, courts rely on the Federal Rules of Evidence (in Florida federal courts) and the Florida Evidence Code (in state courts). A court will refuse to consider evidence that violates the applicable evidence rules. A higher court can overturn the decision of a lower court based on the lower court’s misapplication of the applicable rules of evidence.
Different Types of Evidence
You can categorize evidence in many different ways. However, most legal scholars categorize evidence into four different classes—real evidence, demonstrative evidence, documentary evidence, and testimonial evidence.
Real evidence is physical evidence. One way of understanding real evidence is that it is tangible–” something you could drop on your foot.” Examples include a knife, a gun, a wound, a DNA sample, or fingerprints. There are many types of real evidence.
Demonstrative evidence is used to illustrate the truth of the testimony of a witness. Demonstrative evidence might include charts and diagrams that back up the testimony of an accident reconstruction specialist who is testifying about a car accident. Photographs and CCTV footage also count as demonstrative evidence.
Documentary evidence includes documents such as contracts, letters, checks, newspaper clippings, doctor’s notes, and many other types of documents. Digital evidence such as websites and emails can also count as documentary evidence. The rules of evidence, however, placed many restrictions on what type of documentary evidence is acceptable in court.
Testimonial evidence consists of sworn testimony offered by a witness. Testimonial evidence can include statements made at trial or at a deposition held outside of court. Courts rely on two main types of witnesses– eyewitnesses and expert witnesses.
- An eyewitness states what they have personally seen, heard, or otherwise experienced. An eyewitness might, for example, state that they saw a driver stagger out the driver’s side door and drop a whiskey bottle after a car accident.
- An expert witness states their professional opinion about a matter of concern in the case. A medical expert witness, for example, might state that even a minimally competent doctor would have ordered an x-ray under certain circumstances.
A witness who knowingly offers false testimony might face criminal charges for perjury.
Limitations on the Use of Evidence
Centuries of experience have taught the legal system that it is important to exclude certain types of evidence to ensure a fair trial. Following are a few examples of the many limitations of the use of certain types of evidence.
All evidence must be relevant before a court will consider it. There is sometimes controversy concerning whether certain types of evidence are relevant. Decades ago, for example, evidence that a rape victim was sexually promiscuous would have been considered relevant evidence at a rape trial. Now, courts do not consider such evidence relevant except under extraordinary circumstances.
Probative Value vs. Prejudicial Effect
A court will not consider even relevant evidence if its prejudicial effect exceeds its probative value. Evidence has probative value if it is useful to prove something. It has a prejudicial effect if it tends to unfairly bias the jury. If the prejudicial effect of certain evidence is greater than its probative value, a court will refuse to admit it
An example might be graphic photographs of a serious car accident. A court might consider this evidence inadmissible if it would likely prejudice the jury against the defendant regardless of whether the defendant caused the accident.
Evidence of Subsequent Remedial Measures
Remedial measures are actions to repair a dangerous condition. Suppose, for example, that a child drowns in a pool that sits in someone’s unfenced front yard across from an elementary school. The child’s parents sue the owner of the property, claiming that the unfenced swimming pool was a dangerous condition that caused their child’s death.
Suppose further that after the lawsuit begins, the defendant fences off the pool. The child’s parents cannot use the fact that the property owner fenced off the pool as evidence that it was dangerous before it was fenced off. The purpose of this rule is to encourage people to repair dangerous conditions without fear of reprisals.
According to Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, “Hearsay is an out-of-court statement offered to prove the truth of whatever it asserts.” Although hearsay evidence is generally inadmissible, many exceptions exist.
The Exclusionary Rule
The exclusionary rule applies to exclude certain evidence gathered in violation of a criminal defendant’s constitutional rights. It might apply, for example, to exclude evidence illegally seized from the defendant’s home. The exclusionary rule does not apply to civil lawsuits, including personal injury lawsuits.
Seek Legal Assistance
If someone’s misconduct caused your injury, remember that in court, the truth only matters if you can prove it. An experienced personal injury attorney can help you gather evidence to prove your claim.