[Latin, On the first appearance.] A fact presumed to be true unless it is disproved.
In common parlance the term prima facie is used to describe the apparent nature of something upon initial observation. In legal practice the term generally is used to describe two things: the presentation of sufficient evidence by a civil claimant to support the legal claim (a prima facie case), or a piece of evidence itself (prima facie evidence).
For most civil claims, a plaintiff must present a prima facie case to avoid dismissal of the case or an unfavorable directed verdict. The plaintiff must produce enough evidence on all elements of the claim to support the claim and shift the burden of evidence production to the respondent. If the plaintiff fails to make a prima facie case, the respondent may move for dismissal or a favorable directed verdict without presenting any evidence to rebut whatever evidence the plaintiff has presented. This is because the burden of persuading a judge or jury always rests with the plaintiff.
Assume that a plaintiff claims that an employer failed to promote her based on her sex. The plaintiff must produce affirmative evidence showing that the employer used illegitimate, discriminatory criteria in making employment decisions that concerned the plaintiff. The employer, as respondent, does not have a burden to produce evidence until the plaintiff has made a prima facie case of SEX DISCRIMINATION (Texas Department of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 101 S. Ct. 1089, 67 L. Ed. 2d 207 ). The precise amount of evidence that constitutes a prima facie case varies from claim to claim. If the plaintiff does not present a prima facie case with sufficient evidence, the judge may dismiss the case. Or, if the case is being heard by a jury, the judge may direct the jury to return a verdict for the respondent.
Prima facie also refers to specific evidence that, if believed, supports a case or an element that needs to be proved in the case. The term prima facie evidence is used in both civil and CRIMINAL LAW. For example, if the prosecution in a murder case presents a videotape showing the defendant screaming death threats at the victim, such evidence may be prima facie evidence of intent to kill, an element that must be proved by the prosecution before the defendant may be convicted of murder. On its face, the evidence indicates that the defendant intended to kill the victim.
Statutes may specify that certain evidence is prima facie evidence of a certain fact. For example, a duly authenticated copy of a defendant's criminal record may be considered prima facie evidence of the defendant's prior convictions and may be used against the defendant in court (Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 18-3-412 [West 1996]). A CIVIL LAW example is a statute that makes a duly certified copy or duplicate of a certificate of authority for a fraternal benefit society to transact business prima facie evidence that the society is legal and legitimate (Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 10-14-603 [West 1996]).
Herlitz, Georg Nils. 1994. "The Meaning of the Term 'Prima Facie.'" Louisiana Law Review 55.