What Is Prima Facie?

Prima facie is a legal claim that has sufficient evidence to proceed to trial or judgment. In Latin, prima facie means “at first sight” or “at first view."

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.

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.

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, 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.

Addressing Prima Facie in the Supreme Court

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.