Prima Facie: Legal Definition and Examples

What Is Prima Facie?

The Latin expression prima facie means “at first sight”, “at first view", or "based on first impression". In both civil and criminal law, the term is used to denote that, upon initial examination, a legal claim has sufficient evidence to proceed to trial or judgment.

In most legal proceedings, one party (typically, the plaintiff or the prosecutor) has a burden of proof, which requires them to present prima facie evidence for each element of the charges against the defendant. If they can't present prima facie evidence, or if an opposing party introduces contradictory evidence, the initial claim may be dismissed without any need for a response by other parties.

Key Takeaways

  • Prima facie refers to a case in which pre-trial evidence was reviewed by a judge and determined to be sufficient to warrant the trial.
  • Prima facie is typically used in civil cases, where the burden of proof is on the plaintiff.
  • However, just because a case has been determined prima facie doesn't mean that the plaintiff will win.
  • If the plaintiff lacks sufficient evidence supporting their claim, then the court will likely dismiss the case.
  • If the court determines that a prima facie case exists, the defendant must present evidence that overcomes the prima facie case in order to prevail.

Understanding Prima Facie

In civil litigation, a plaintiff files a lawsuit claiming that a defendant’s actions (or inactions) caused an injury.

For example, a business may file a claim indicating that one of its vendors is in breach of contract after failing to deliver an order and that the failure to deliver resulted in the business losing customers. The complaint filed with the court provides background information on the reason for the lawsuit, what the injury was, and how the defendant may have contributed to this injury occurring. Before going to trial, the court must determine if the case has enough merit to be tried in court. Upon an initial examination of the claim during a pre-trial hearing, a judge may determine that enough evidence exists to establish a rebuttable presumption in favor of the plaintiff. The case is thus considered prima facie.

Even if a prima facie case is permitted to go to trial, the plaintiff is not guaranteed to win the lawsuit. Civil lawsuits place the burden of proof on the plaintiff, and only if the plaintiff is able to provide a preponderance of evidence will the court consider the claim to be valid. If the plaintiff lacks sufficient evidence supporting its claim that the defendant caused injury, then the court will likely find against the plaintiff and dismiss the case. If the court determines that a prima facie case exists, the defendant must present evidence that overcomes the prima facie case in order to prevail.

Prima Facie in Tort Law

Prima facie in tort law aims to provide relief to plaintiffs (the injured party) for harms caused by others (defendants) who harm them with malicious intent, but in a way that is not technically or specifically unlawful. A plaintiff will need to prove that a defendant has met all the components of a prima facie tort case in order to prove that the defendant committed that tort.

These components are typically duty, breach, damages, and causation:

  1. The plaintiff must show that the person who injured them had a duty (civil obligation) to not harm them,
  2. That the plaintiff breached that duty by harming them with malicious intention and no other justification.
  3. There were actual damages.
  4. The defendant's breach caused those damages.

For example, consider a prima facie tort case where a landlord wants to get rid of a dental practice in their office space simply because he does not like dentists, so he takes action to get rid of the dentist for that reason alone. The actions of the landlord damage the reputation of the dentist and his patients stop coming. The dentist goes out of business and leaves the office space. In this example, all the components of a prima facie case can be established (malice and damages seem obvious).

However, if any of these components can't be proved by the plaintiff, then the court will likely assert that the tort did not occur. Consider a different scenario where an employee injures her foot but her job requires her to stand for the whole day. She complains to her boss and asks for a chair, but the boss refuses to accommodate her because there are no chairs in the workplace. Here, the boss doesn't have a desire to hurt the employee. Therefore, if the employee were to sue their boss for prima facie tort, they would not be able to establish malice and their case would likely be dismissed.

Prima Facie in Criminal Law

Prima facie works similarly in criminal law: the prosecution has to present a prima facie case that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged. If the prosecution cannot present evidence supporting each component of the crime, the defendant must be acquitted from the charges.

For example, in a case of burglary, the prosecution must present evidence that the defendant entered the premises without authorization and with the intention of committing burglary, and that the defendant stole items from the premises.

In a prima facie case, the defendant has the opportunity to offer evidence disputing each element of the crime that the prosecution has established. On the other hand, the prosecution must prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant's main goal will usually be just to cast doubt upon the prosecution's proof, and if they succeed in doing so, they must be acquitted.

Prima Facie and Employment Discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.

To establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination a plaintiff must prove the following: 1) They were a member of a protected class; 2) They suffered an adverse
employment action; 3) They met their employer’s legitimate expectations at the time of the adverse employment action, and 4) They were treated differently from similarly situated employees outside their protected class.

In some instances, the evidence presented in a claim is enough to allow for summary judgment. In a prima facie case, the facts established are sufficient enough to prove that the defendant’s actions support the plaintiff’s claims of injury. In employment discrimination lawsuits, for example, the courts have established tests and guidelines that judges use to determine whether a summary judgment can be given. If the plaintiff is able to establish a prima facie case, then the burden of proof shifts toward the defendant, who must prove that an employee was terminated for reasons other than discrimination.

Real-World Example

The issue of prima facie has been addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, in the 1992 case of St. Mary's Honor Center v. Hicks. In this case, an employee of a halfway house alleged that he was discharged because of his race, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When tried in District Court, the employee established a prima facie case of discrimination but was found to have not provided sufficient evidence to prove that the employer was using race as a factor when it decided to fire the plaintiff. The case went to the United States Court of Appeals, and later to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found that while the employee did establish a prima facie case, this did not entitle the employee to a mandatory win.

What Are the 4 Elements of a Prima Facie Case of Negligence?

The four elements required to establish a prima facie case of negligence are: 

  1. The existence of a legal duty that the defendant owed to the plaintiff
  2. The defendant's breach of that duty
  3. The plaintiff's sufferance of an injury
  4. Proof that the defendant's breach caused the injury 

What Is Prima Facie Eligibility?

A trial or judgment is said to be prima facie eligible when the pre-trial evidence has been presented by the plaintiff, reviewed by a judge, and determined to be sufficient to warrant the trial.

What Are Prima Facie Duties?

According to Scottish moral philosopher W. D. Ross in his book Right and the Good, a prima facie duty is "a duty that is binding or obligatory, other things being equal." Common examples include the duty to tell the truth, obey the law, protect people from harm, and keep one’s promises.

Article Sources
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  2. "Prima Facie Tort: Definition & Elements."

  3. Tilem and Associates. "Prima Facie Tort."

  4. CriminalDefenseLawyer. "What Is a Prima Facie Case?"

  5. General Counsel Attorneys at Law. "Employee must meet employer's legitimate expectations to establish case of employment discrimination."

  6. Justia. "St. Mary's Honor Center v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502 (1993)."

  7. Supreme Court. "St. Mary's Honor Center v. Hicks."

  8. SocialWork Today. "Eye on Ethics."

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