A key difference between the VA benefits system and other federal benefits systems is the standard for how convincing the evidence has to be in order to support an award. In legal terms, this is called the "standard of proof" or the "evidentiary standard." Most people are familiar with the standard of proof of "beyond a reasonable doubt" in a criminal trial. This is a very high evidentiary standard.
In VA benefits cases the standard of proof is a "preponderance of the evidence." This is a very low – and more easily met – evidentiary standard. Because "preponderance" means the "majority," an award should be granted when the evidence supporting a claim is ever so slightly more than the evidence against a claim. Another way of stating this is that VA is supposed to grant a award unless more evidence is against the claim than supports the claim.
The preponderance of the evidence standard leads directly to another important rule, known as the "benefit of the doubt" rule. The law requires that, after consideration of all the evidence, if there is an approximate balance of positive and negative evidence, the benefit of the doubt in resolving each such issue should be given to the claimant. In other words, if VA finds that the evidence is equally divided between evidence supporting a claim and evidence against a claim, such as two conflicting medical opinions, the claimant gets the benefit of the positive evidence. For this reason, the rule is also known as the "tie goes to the runner" rule, where the claimant is the runner.
The benefit of the doubt rule, however, is widely misunderstood and is often the source of great frustration for claimants. Despite what many believe, the rule does not mean that VA must make an award anytime a claimant submits an account of an event supporting an award. The rule also does not mean that VA has to believe a claimant, a claimant's spouse, or claimant's doctor when other evidence is in conflict with their statements. VA is always required to weigh such evidence against other evidence, such as service records or other medical opinions, but VA can find other evidence more convincing.
All the rule really means is that when all the evidence on a particular issue is equally balanced between positive and negative, VA must give the benefit of the doubt to the veteran on that particular issue. The rule only applies when there is a close call on some issue: when the evidence tilts one way or the other, the rule does not apply. Further, giving the benefit of the doubt on one issue does not mean the entire claim must be resolved in favor of a claimant. This is because the rule is applied to individual issues, not an entire claim. So, for example, resolving whether a certain event occurred during service using the benefit of the doubt rule does not have any effect on the issue of whether there is a nexus between the incident and a current condition. If the evidence is strongly against a nexus, the claim will still be (correctly) denied.
Pursuant to 38 C.F.R. § 3.102, any reasonable doubt must be resolved in favor of the appellant "[w]hen there is an approximate balance of positive and negative evidence regarding any issue material to the determination of a matter." "The Secretary shall consider all information and lay and medical evidence of record in a case before the Secretary with respect to benefits under laws administered by the Secretary. When there is an approximate balance of positive and negative evidence regarding any issue material to the determination of a matter, the Secretary shall give the benefit of the doubt to the claimant." 38 U.S.C. § 5107(b).
"When after careful consideration of all procurable and assembled data, a reasonable doubt arises regarding the degree of disability such doubt will be resolved in favor of the claimant." 38 C.F.R. § 4.3. Section 3.102 defines the term "reasonable doubt" as used in § 4.3 as doubt "which exists because of an approximate balance of positive and negative evidence which does not satisfactorily prove or disprove the claim." 38 C.F.R. § 3.102; see Ortiz v. Principi, 274 F.3d 1361, 1364 (Fed. Cir. 2001) (stating that section 3.102 "restates" the provisions of 38 U.S.C. section 5107(b) (benefit of the doubt) in terms of "reasonable doubt"). Thus where the Board concludes that the evidence is not in equipoise, specific consideration of section 4.3 is not warranted. See Schoolman v. West, 12 Vet. App. 307, 311 (1999) (explaining that where the preponderance of the evidence is against an appellant's claims, "the benefit of the doubt doctrine does not apply"). Mayhue v. Shinseki, 24 Vet. App. 273, 282 (2011).
Perhaps the analogy most helpful to an understanding of the "benefit of the doubt" rule is that the standard is similar to the rule deeply embedded in sandlot baseball folklore that "the tie goes to the runner." If the ball clearly beats the runner, he is out and the rule has no application; if the runner clearly beats the ball, he is safe and, again, the rule has no application; if, however, the play is close, then the runner is called safe by operation of the rule that "the tie goes to the runner." Similarly, if a fair preponderance of the evidence is against a veteran's claim, it will be denied and the "benefit of the doubt" rule has no application; if the veteran establishes a claim by a fair preponderance of the evidence, the claim will be granted and, again, the rule has no application; if, however, the play is close, i.e., "there is an approximate balance of positive and negative evidence," the veteran prevails by operation of 38 U.S.C. section 5107(b). Gilbert v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 49, 55-56 (1990).
The Court has held that the failure of the BVA to apply the benefit of the doubt rule or to set forth clearly its reasons for not applying it constitutes error. See O'Hare v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 365, 367 (1991); Sussex v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 526, 529 (1991). In addition, the Court notes that 38 U.S.C. 1154(b) provides specifically that the Secretary "shall resolve every reasonable doubt in favor of the veteran." 38 C.F.R. § 3.302. Furthermore, when the BVA can cite no evidence or facts by which to impeach or contradict a claim, there is no justifiable basis upon which to deny application of the doctrine under 38 C.F.R. § 3.102. Sheets v. Derwinski, 2 Vet. App. 512, 516-17 (1992).
Because the benefit of the doubt rule only applies in these specific situations, the rule is not applicable to many claimants. In cases where there is significant evidence in support of a claim, however, VA must provide a satisfactory explanation as to why the evidence was not balanced enough to apply the rule if the decision was adverse to the claimant.