Legal Terms: Your Guide to the Language You Might Hear in Your Personal Injury Case

Personal Injuries

The law contains confusing and convoluted language. One can think of the law and the world of attorneys as having a different language than the commonly spoken words between laypersons. Sometimes it’s called legalese.

Similarly, many professional fields have their own jargon. Two examples are the medical community and the mathematics community.

Legal processes play a part in everyone’s life, so we want to help you understand the legal system and the various legal terms it uses in this article.

Lawsuit Terms

legal terms in your personal injury case

To start a discussion of legal terms, a lawsuit is a good place to start. A lawsuit itself is an action taken against another person or entity to seek a desired outcome. Lawsuits are known as civil actions, which means they concern non-criminal matters. These include negligence, breach of contract, or intentional torts.

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In civil courts, judges and clerks oversee the different pleadings filed and documents submitted that ultimately affect the outcome. The person or entity that files a lawsuit is called the plaintiff, and the other person or entity is the defendant.

#1. Pleadings

Lawsuits are composed of several parts, and the entire lawsuit process is generally known as litigation.

The first portion of a lawsuit is called the pleadings. The pleadings are the initial documents filed and exchanged in court to start a suit.

The pleadings include the initial complaint, which is the first document filed.

The complaint is a document that lists the grievances against the other party, the factual basis for the complaint, and the relief sought. The plaintiff can amend the complaint as the pleadings continue and both sides obtain more information. Another important pleading is called the answer, which is the defendant’s response to the initial complaint.

An answer replies to each claim in the complaint and seeks to dismiss the complaint as frivolous or defend the person or entity sued. Ther parties can amend an answer, just as with a complaint, as the lawsuit proceeds.

Many other pleadings, such as motions and protests,  facilitate litigation and hold each party accountable. The pleadings stage is usually lengthy, and many documents are filed with the court and exchanged between parties.

#2. Discovery

Following the pleadings stage, discovery begins. Discovery is how both parties collect evidence that supports each of their cases. The different methods of discovery pursue different forms of information. Discovery can uncover documents, photos, emails, objects, and anything else that may help prove or disprove a claim. Discovery tools include interrogatories and depositions.

Interrogatories are written questions posed to a party to answer truthfully under oath. Interrogatories are limited to questions of fact and cannot request that a party make legal conclusions and speculations. Depositions are interviews under oath that both parties’ attorneys attend.

Either party in court requests depositions. When a deposition takes place, the opposing party’s attorney interviews the deposed person with their attorney present.

The deposed person must answer each question truthfully, but they are not obligated to provide any more information than necessary to answer the question. Also, the deposed person’s attorney can object to questions they believe improper and the court will address these objections.

The discovery stage is notably one of the longest and most expensive processes in litigation. Discovery is extensive, and through the process, both parties should be well aware of the advantages or disadvantages of their case. This often makes apparent which side will probably win.

This can lead to a settlement, which can happen at any point, before, or during the lawsuit process. A settlement is an agreement, usually independent of the court, between the parties to end the dispute. If, however, a settlement is not reached, the next stage of a lawsuit is summary judgment.

#3. Summary Judgment

The defendant usually files summary judgment, requesting a court decision in their favor instead of proceeding to trial. A judge will look at all the relevant facts and discoveries and compare them to the legal theories presented by each party.

If, upon examining all the evidence, the judge decides that even taking all the plaintiff’s claims as true, they have no valid legal claim, the judge will grant summary judgment on behalf of the defendant. Summary judgment is a significant hurdle, and if survived, the defense will take the case even more seriously, and potential settlement offers may increase.

#4. Trial

Finally, after this arduous process, a trial may commence. Trials are exceedingly rare as the majority of cases settle beforehand. Trials can only take place after all pleadings and discovery are complete, and a judge denied any motion for summary judgment. However, when they do finally begin, many rules dictate the process.

The most well-known aspect of a trial is the jury. A jury typically consists of twelve individuals who, together, decide the outcome of the case. A jury pool is selected randomly from the public, but the judge and the attorneys vet the jury pool to select who will sit on the jury. The attorneys try to select jury members who will benefit their case and side with their clients.

Once the jury is selected and approved, the trial can begin. During a trial, both sides present evidence, give statements, and question witnesses in front of the jury. Each party supports their argument with evidence to convince the jury it is more valid than the opposition.

Once both sides give all the evidence and statements, the jury deliberates and concludes. In a bench trial, a judge acts as both judge and jury. If neither party to the lawsuit requests a jury trial, a bench trial takes place.

#5. Appeal

Even after a judge has issued their judgment, the matter may still not necessarily resolve. The party who lost the previous lawsuit may appeal. The higher court reviews the facts and evidence in the previous trial.

The appeals court mainly considers whether the legal theories presented support the lower court’s decision. If the appeals court determines that the lower court’s decision is not valid, they can reverse and remand the judgment. An appeals court reversing and remanding a judgment means the matter is sent back to the lower court for a new trial. Appeals are rarely granted.

The Court System

To understand the legal system and legal terminology, you must understand the court system. The court system has different levels and two primary types. One is the civil system, which hears lawsuits and other civil proceedings.

The other is the criminal system, which is concerned with criminal matters. You might think of criminal matters as the government filing a lawsuit against a citizen for violating the law. The two court systems are similar in their structure and methods. However, the civil court system addresses personal injuries.

The court system where you file a lawsuit depends on where the incident occurred and the type of incident or subject matter. You can file suit in small claims court, state court, or federal court.

A small claims court is a local justice court where the stakes are comparatively lower than the other court systems usually deal with. This means the disputed damages are not significant enough to qualify for state or federal court. The limit on damages for small claims court varies based on location. These courts play an important role in the legal system, handling many of our most commonplace legal issues.

The state court system is highly complicated and shares many aspects with the federal court system. Each state’s court system varies slightly. However, most states share the same basic structure. For a state court to hear a case, the damages must meet a threshold amount. The lowest court in most states is the district court, where plaintiffs initially file lawsuits. State district court judges hear cases and facilitate the pleadings, discovery, summary judgment, and trial process.

Once the district court makes its judgment, the losing party can appeal it. When a party appeals a judgment, it goes to the state court of appeals. The court of appeals reviews the lower court’s judgment and decides whether to accept it or remand it. If the appellate court accepts the judgment again, the losing party can appeal again to the highest court in the state.

The state’s highest court is usually the Supreme Court, which has purview over all appealed legal matters in the state. The Supreme Court’s decision is final and you generally cannot appeal it.

Once you understand the state system, you have a basic understanding of the federal system. The federal system almost directly mirrors the state court system in its structure. However, all court systems have different rules of procedure that determine how they hear matters.

The first level of the Federal court system is also the district court, followed by the court of appeals, which hears cases appealed from the district court. The highest court in the federal system is the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s decisions are highly influential and create strong legal precedents that apply to future cases at all levels.

If you or a loved one is in a legal dispute, contact an attorney today. The language and processes of the legal system are complex and confusing. An attorney can answer your questions, evaluate your case, guide you through our legal system, and fight for you every step of the way.