The following definitions are basic explanations for some of the most common phrases and words used in personal injury cases.
Abstract of Title: A chronological summary of all official records and recorded documents affecting the title to a portion of real property.
Accident Report: A formal, detailed recording of an event documented from the scene of the incident by an authority figure, like a police officer or hospital staff member.
Ad Litem: A Latin term meaning for the purposes of the lawsuit. A guardian “ad litem” may be appointed by a court to stand in on another’s behalf—someone who is incapable of representing him or herself, such as child or legally incompetent adult.
Adjudicate: To resolve a legal case.
Appeal: To ask a higher court to reverse the decision of a trial court when one party does not agree with the decision; petition for a higher court to examine the decision in hopes of getting it overturned.
Assumption of Risk: When a person voluntarily proceeds with a risk despite obvious and known danger. In this situation, the individual assumed the risk and thus will not be permitted to seek monetary damages from those they believe to be responsible.
Bodily Injury: Any damage to a person’s body; for example bruises, burns, cuts, poisonings, broken bones, nerve damage, etc. Bodily injury may result from an accident, negligence, or an intentional act. Causing bodily injury on purpose is a crime (assault, battery, etc.) while accidental and negligent harm may result in a lawsuit.
Burden of Proof: The burden of proof refers to the plaintiff’s obligation to prove his or her allegations to be true or at least more likely true than not. There are several different thresholds of proof that could apply depending upon the type of case being litigated.
Causation: To make something happen; the act or process of causing something. In a negligence case, the plaintiff must show that their injury was directly caused by something the defendant did (or failed to do).
Civil Rights: A group of rights possessed by all citizens under the protection of the U.S. Constitution. Civil law covers all individuals whose rights have been violated to file a lawsuit against another person, private companies, as well as government agencies in order to recover damages and modify practices that infringe on civil rights.
Claim (personal injury): A civil action relating to the physical or mental harm suffered by the plaintiff, or on behalf of the injured victim, due to negligence on the defendant’s part.
Class-action Lawsuit: A suit filed by a plaintiff or plaintiffs on behalf of themselves and as representatives of others. Class-action lawsuits are most often filed to hold a company accountable for the liability of its products, such as defective pharmaceutical drugs or toxic materials.
Claim Adjuster: The liaison between the insured and the insurance company, responsible for investigating and overseeing the claim on behalf of the insurance company, as well as approving medical and rehabilitation treatment plans; they work for the insurance company and are obligated to them.
Comparative Negligence: Comparing a plaintiff’s contribution to the accident to the defendant’s negligence. A plaintiff may only recover compensation if his/her negligence is less than the defendant. In such cases, a plaintiff’s total damages are reduced by the proportion they are determined to be at fault.
Compensation: Something that makes up for a loss.
Contingency Fee: Rather than an hourly or fixed fee, a contingency fee is paid to an attorney when an attorney is successful in making a recovery on behalf of his client. The lawyer receives a percentage of the verdict or settlement amount. If the lawyer is unsuccessful in making any recovery for the client, there is no fee charged to the client.
Damages: Payment, usually monetary, recovered in a civil court case for an injury or loss caused by another person’s negligence. Damages may be either compensatory or punitive.
Defendant: The party against whom the civil lawsuit has been filed (by the plaintiff).
Demand Letter: A formal letter sent to the opposing party formally requesting some action from them and usually with threat of legal action.
Deposition: out-of-court question and answer session under oath; testimony given under oath, recorded in an authorized place outside of the courtroom and usually documented by a court reporter; the questions will be asked by the opposing attorney, with the party’s attorney present, in order to have an official, written
Docket: The calendar of actions to be heard by a court in a certain period of time.
Duty: In cases of negligence, a “duty” refers to an obligation to provide a certain standard of care (see below). Failure to meet this obligation is negligence, and cause for legal action on the part of the injured individual.
Excess Judgement: Amount of additional damages that an insurer is required to pay above the policy limit, usually awarded by a judge if it is found that the insurance company acted in bad faith when settling a claim.
Expert Witness: A person who is allowed to testify at a trial because of special knowledge or proficiency in a particular field that is relevant to the case.
Fraud: A blatant false or deceptive statement of fact intended to persuade another person to give up something valuable or a legal right he/she is entitled to.
Gross Negligence: Intentional failure to perform a standard of duty by recklessly disregarding another person’s health or property; also known as willful negligence.
Hazardous Exposure: Physical contact with poisonous substances or proximity to toxic airborne agents that are potentially harmful to health. Liability for hazardous exposure may rest on several parties, including the manufacturer of the product, the company responsible for installation, as well as the owner of the building that contains toxic agents, such as a landlord or employer. Talk to a toxic injury attorney if you have been injured or gotten sick because of hazardous exposure.
Health Care Expenses: The costs incurred by seeing a number of different healthcare providers, such as doctors, therapists, and specialists; the collective cost of all one’s medical care.
Insurer: The company or entity that provides coverage through an insurance policy.
Insured: The individual protected under an insurance policy.
Interrogatories: Written questions created by one party’s attorney for the opposing party to answer under oath within a specific amount of time. After the document is filled out, the plaintiff’s attorney reviews it then it is signed by the answered in front of a notary.
Lawsuit, or Suit: A court action brought by one person, the plaintiff, against another, the defendant.
Liability: An obligation one is bound to by law to perform; typically involved the payment of monetary damages.
Litigation: the process of taking legal action and/or filing a lawsuit.
Loss of consortium: Damages awarded to the family member (usually a spouse) of a deceased person for loss of companionship.
Mediation: Outside help settling a dispute; a non-binding method of resolving a case in which a neutral third party, agreed upon by both parties, helps the disputing sides to reach a mutually agreeable settlement.
Medical Malpractice: Medical malpractice – The delivery of care by a healthcare provider that is negligent or does not meet the established standard of care and results in a patient’s injury or death.
Medical Malpractice Caps: Limits, or “caps,” on the amount of compensation a victim of medical malpractice can seek out. These caps are intended to keep insurance premiums low and vary by state.
Mitigating Circumstances: Conditions that do not constitute a justification or total pardon for an offense, but which may be used as a reason for reducing the degree of fault.
Negligence: Broadly speaking, it is carelessness. More specifically, in civil law, negligence is conduct which falls below the standard of care established by law for the protection of others against unreasonable risks of harm.
Notary: A person with legal training who is licensed by the state to perform acts in legal affairs, in particular, witnessing signatures on documents. Their seal and signature on a document is proof that the person who signed the document did so willingly and is who they say they are. Occupational Disease: An illness caused by long-term employment in a particular line of work, such as construction workers exposed to asbestos, who later develop cancer.
Out-of-Court Settlement: An agreement reached between the plaintiff and defendant which does not require the approval of a court or judge; an out-of-court settlement will typically be struck between the two parties’ lawyers before a trial takes place. Can be achieved on attorneys’ own terms, during mediation, or at arbitration.
Out-of-Pocket Expenses: Money spent out of the injured party’s own funds on costs related to their injuries, which may include: travel, medications, assistive devices, etc. Anything one had to pay before they began to receive benefits. See Special Damages.
Paralegal: Someone trained and certified to perform any function of assistance to a lawyer including summaries, research, investigation, and the retrieval of records; certified person who works in a law office helping an attorney prepare a case.
Parties: Persons, corporations, or associations who have started a lawsuit, or who are defendants in a lawsuit.
Personal Injury: The area of law which covers all physical, financial, and emotional injuries caused by another person or party’s negligence in using reasonable care. Personal injury cases are considered civil torts, as opposed to criminal lawsuits.
Plaintiff: In civil law, the person or party who brings the legal action or files the lawsuit; also called a complainant.
Pleading: Generally, any document, statement, or request filed with the court; a formal document in which someone that is part of the legal case makes or responds to allegations, claims, denials, or defenses.
Product Liability: The accountability of a merchant, business, or manufacturer for bodily injury or property damage because of a defect in their product.
Premises Liability: The legal responsibility of a property owner or occupier of a property to provide compensation for persons who sustain certain injuries while on their premises. For example, a person who is hurt from a slip and fall accident caused by a spill may be able to sue the property owner for negligence.
Preponderance of Evidence: The amount of evidence a plaintiff needs to win a civil case. A preponderance of evidence means that the proof you present must weigh heavier or be more convincing in comparison to the evidence offered by the other side. To win by a preponderance of evidence, the proof presented must simply tip the scales in the plaintiff’s favor, compared to the burden of proof standard set in criminal cases, which must be “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Products Liability: The area of civil law that holds manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, retailers, and other parties who make a defective product available to the public responsible for injuries that the faulty product causes.
Proximate Cause: The primary or moving reason why an injury or damage occurred and without which the accident would not have happened, if the injury in question can be foreseen as a natural occurrence of the misdeed.
Settlement: An agreement between both parties in a lawsuit.
Sexual Assault: Any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Can be anything from rape to unwanted touching.
Slip-and-Fall: A personal injury case in which a person slips or trips and is injured on someone else’s property; usually falls under the broader category of premises liability claims. Slip and fall accidents usually occur on property owned or maintained by someone else who is then held legally responsible.
Standard of Care: For cases of negligence, the degree of care which a reasonable person would have applied under the same or similar circumstances. In medical malpractice lawsuits, doctors or health care professionals who fail to meet the standard established by law to protect patients from negligence, the person may be liable for damages or injuries resulting from their conduct.
Statute of Limitations: The amount of time prescribed by law for a plaintiff to file a lawsuit. Statutes can vary by case type and location of injury.
Strict Liability: A legal doctrine that holds a defendant liable for harm cause by their actions regardless of their intentions or level of care. Typically, strict liability is used in defective products or products liability cases.
Subpoenas: A command, issued by the court, to appear at a certain time and place to give testimony for a case.
Subrogation: A legal right that allows one party to make a payment that is actually owed by another party, and then later collect that money from the party whom originally owed it.
Testimony: Evidence given by a witness under oath during a deposition or trial.
Third-Party Litigation: When a case is brought against a defendant who wants to add another party to the suit.
Tort: A private wrong or injury committed against a person or property, resulting in legal liability. Personal injuries arising from negligence are a common example of one type of tort.
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): An impact to the head that results in a diminished or altered state of consciousness and may impair a person’s cognitive abilities, physical capacity, and/or a disturbance of emotional or behavioral functioning. Often occurs during severe auto accidents or sports-related injuries.
Trier of Facts: The jury; or in a non-jury trial, the judge. The person or group that analyzes the evidence in order to make a decision about the case or issue in dispute.
Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Coverage (UM/UIM): An addition to a standard automobile insurance policy that provides coverage in the event the other driver is both at fault for the accident and is not insured; protects the first-party from having no coverage in the event that someone who is driving without insurance crashes into them.
UIM coverage is triggered in California if the person at fault does not have sufficient coverage to compensate the injured plaintiff for their injuries. California does not permit insurance policies to be stacked, so the first party UIM coverage must be higher than the at-fault party’s insurance limits.
Verdict: A judge or jury’s decision on a case.
Vicarious Liability: The liability of one person for the torts of another.
Workers’ Compensation (Workers’ Comp): Mandatory insurance that almost all employers are required to hold in order to cover their employees for economic losses due to a job-related injury or illness.
Wrongful Death Action: A lawsuit filed against an individual or company for the death of a person due to negligent or wrongful behavior. Wrongful death cases are generally filed by a surviving family member (typically spouse), who can recover damages for mental and physical suffering, lost wages, funeral and medical expenses for the deceased, loss of income and earning capacity, loss of consortium, and more.