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What Is the Legal Terminology in Personal Injury Lawsuits?

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A Legal Glossary of Terms:

During your search for a personal injury lawyer, you may have encountered many unfamiliar legal terms. Our team at the Law Offices of Charles R. Gueli wants to help make sure you know what you’re looking at – and that you understand the terms that are most relevant to your case.

Although many legal glossaries are in alphabetical order, we’ve compiled ours in the order you are most likely to encounter them.

Personal Injury

Let’s begin with personal injury. According to the American Bar Association, personal injury law is a field of law “designed to protect you if you or your property is injured or harmed because of someone else's act or failure to act.”


Personal injury law is also called tort law. Per the Legal Information Institute: “A tort is an act or omission that gives rise to injury or harm to another and amounts to a civil wrong for which courts impose liability.”


Liability is the legal word for responsibility. Accepting liability means taking responsibility for one’s actions. Usually, someone accepts responsibility by paying for the consequences of their actions.

In personal injury lawsuits, for example, the liable party pays the medical bills in question.


A lawsuit is a legal action one party takes against another, to be decided in court. Lawsuits emerge when both parties want the court to resolve the dispute and/or issue a remedy.

Personal injury lawsuits are civil lawsuits, which take place outside of the criminal justice system, typically involve one or more private parties, and deal with civil or private rights (as opposed to crime and punishment).


A plaintiff is a person or party that brings about a civil lawsuit. Anyone who files a civil complaint with the court can become a plaintiff.


The defendant is the person or party the lawsuit is filed against. Defendants are called defendants because they must defend themselves from formal complaints.


The term, “damages,” has 2 meanings. It can refer to any harm the plaintiff has suffered, as well as the money that the plaintiff asks for and the defendant pays (if the plaintiff wins).

Someone can suffer damages and be awarded damages.

Damages can be economic, non-economic, and punitive:

  • Economic damages compensate the plaintiff for measurable losses, such as medical bills and missed wages.
  • Non-economic damages compensate the plaintiff for losses that are harder to measure, such as pain and suffering.
  • Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant and discourage similar acts or omissions in the future.

Most personal injury lawsuits revolve around damages.


To win damages, the plaintiff must prove negligence. Negligence is the legal term for carelessness or:

A failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances.”

Negligence can consist of an action (reckless driving) or a failure to act (not warning someone of a hazard).

Duty of Care

A duty of care is a legal obligation to be careful. The obligation may be required by law, custom, morality, or personal commitment.

The standard of reasonable care is set by how a “reasonable” person might have acted in a similar situation. For example, a reasonable person would not drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol, so drunk driving is careless and breaches the duty of care that all drivers owe one another.

As part of proving negligence, the plaintiff must show that the defendant owed them a duty of care.


A breach is a violation of an obligation without excuse or justification. In personal injury lawsuits, a breach is any action or inaction that deviates from the standard of reasonable care or violates the duty of care.

Plaintiffs must show that a breach occurred to prove negligence.

Proximate Cause

A proximate cause is a reason that is good enough to support legal liability. Drunk driving, for instance, is the proximate cause of injuries someone receives in a drunk driving accident.

To prove negligence, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s breach is a proximate cause of their injuries.

Burden of Proof

The plaintiff must prove negligence (and all the elements of negligence) because the burden of proof rests with the plaintiff in civil cases. A burden of proof is an obligation to prove one’s assertion. The term can also be used to establish the standard of proof.

For example, in civil cases, the burden of proof is a preponderance of the evidence, which means the plaintiff must prove that there is a more than 50% chance their claim is true.


Plaintiffs can meet their burden of proof via evidence. Evidence is information presented to the court to help the judge or jury make decisions.


Discovery is the pre-trial process in which the plaintiff and the defendant share the evidence they hope to present in court with one another.

Because this evidence includes the facts each party will build their case on, many lawsuits settle during discovery.


A settlement occurs when the plaintiff and the defendant resolve their dispute without going to trial. Usually, the defendant pays the plaintiff a certain amount of money to settle the case without admitting fault or accepting liability.


The judge or jury’s formal examination of evidence is called a trial. A trial results in a verdict, which is the outcome of a civil case.

Most personal injury lawsuits are resolved before trial. Verdicts in personal injury lawsuits typically involve the court awarding money to the plaintiff or freeing the defendant from liability.

Sometimes, the losing party will have to pay the other’s legal expenses.

Other Terms

The legal terms above are some of the most important to understand in a personal injury lawsuit. Of course, you will come across many other terms and concepts throughout the legal process.

Our legal glossary of terms should give you a good starting point, and you can also use glossaries from the American Bar Association or the Offices of the United States Attorneys to help you.

Once you have an attorney, you can also ask them to define any terms you come across that aren’t listed here – or explain any legal concepts you are uncertain about.

The Law Offices of Charles R. Gueli has over 2 decades of legal experience and concentrates on personal injury cases. Our team is dedicated to helping you understand your rights and legal options and gives each client personalized attention.

We are also available 24/7 to take your call and get you started with a free case evaluation.

Please call us at (516) 628-6402 or contact us online for professional guidance and representation during your personal injury lawsuit.

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