Being involved in a lawsuit can be an intimidating process. Your lawyer is there to help and guide, but they might also use words or phrases that are unfamiliar. This glossary will help break down the words and basic legal terms you’re most likely to hear as you move through the courts and litigation process.
The following basic legal terms all refer to civil personal injury lawsuits.
Plaintiff: The plaintiff is the person who files a lawsuit because they’ve been injured or wronged. There’s no plaintiff in a criminal case; the entity that brings the suit is the government (prosecutor).
Defendant: The defendant is the person or entity being sued. A defendant can be an individual, a company, organization, or government. There can be multiple plaintiffs and defendants in a single suit.
Injury: An injury could be either a physical injury (broken leg, head injury, etc.), emotional injury (pain and suffering), wrongful death, defamation of character, or financial loss (loss of property, assets, past or future earnings, breach of contract, or others). The purpose of the civil court system is to make a plaintiff whole. In other words, it’s to restore a plaintiff to the condition they were in before the injury occurred. Sometimes this isn’t possible — you can’t always reverse a physical injury, bring back a deceased loved one, or restore someone’s career or reputation in the community — but the court system is designed to compensate the plaintiff with a sum of money that will restore what has been lost, even if money can’t fix the actual injury.
Damages: Damages are the money recovered in a lawsuit, and they can be either economic or non-economic. Money is money, of course, but “damages” is the word that refers to what you receive the money for. Here’s the difference between the three main types of damages available in a civil case:
Complaint: Your lawyer will file a document called a “complaint” in order to initiate the lawsuit with the court. The complaint lists each claim for which you want to be awarded damages.
Answer: After your lawyer files the complaint, the defendant will have a specified period of time to file an “answer”, which is how they intend to respond (whether they believe they are liable or not liable, and for what portion of the damages).
Statute of limitations: The law sets forth time periods in which you’re able to file a lawsuit, and those are based on the type of case and the state. In most states, a personal injury statute of limitations is 2-3 years, but there are usually exceptions for medical malpractice. What that means is that the clock begins to run as soon as you became aware (or a reasonable person would’ve become aware) that an injury occurred. So, it would generally begin either on the date of the accident or loss, or the date of diagnosis. If you haven’t filed a claim within the statutory time limit, you’re no longer able to do so. Read more.
Liability: Liability is the legal equivalent of responsibility or obligation. Whether the case is about a contract, personal injury, medical malpractice, damage to property, or something else, a defendant’s liability is their obligation under the law. In other words, someone driving a car bears a legal responsibility to be safe and aware, and take the proper precautions on the road. If they cause an accident, they’re liable for damage to another person’s physical well-being or property. If the case is economic in nature (for example, if someone leaves their barbecue burning and it burns down your house), they’re liable for your property loss. Read more.
Tort: Any wrongful act that isn’t a crime (also not breach of contract) is called a tort. This includes negligence, defamation, wrongful death, and others. “Tort law” is an umbrella term that covers non-criminal wrongful acts. For example, liability from a car accident is a tort if the accident was caused by the defendant’s negligence (meaning it was “just” an accident).
Negligence: A person is negligent if they failed to act with reasonable care and that carelessness caused damage or harm to another person. Read more.
Duty, breach, and causation: There are three elements to establishing negligence.
Strict liability: This legal theory says that a defendant is liable even when there’s no fault or wrongful action. Usually, this is with respect to defective products such as defective drugs or medical devices because a manufacturer always has a duty to distribute items that are safe when used properly. The purpose of strict liability is to shift the burden of proof onto the defendant. For instance, if a plaintiff sues a drug manufacturer for injuries he sustained as a result of dangerous side effects that he wasn’t warned about when taking the drug, the manufacturer would need to prove that the drug didn’t cause the injuries. Read more.
Comparative fault and contributory negligence standards: In a personal injury lawsuit, the amount you receive in damages can depend on the state where the court decides the case. In some states, both the plaintiff and defendant can be assigned some percent of fault, even if the plaintiff’s percentage is very small. Use the chart below to see what the law is in your state.
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For more on personal injury lawsuits and how they work, see also: