Dictionary of Legal Terms
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Affidavit: A written statement sworn to be true.
The individual providing the affidavit must sign the document and swear under
oath before a notary public or make a declaration under penalty of perjury.
American Bar Association (ABA): The ABA is the
predominant professional association for attorneys practicing in the United
States. The ABA actively influences legal policy, lobbies for the legal
profession, and evaluates legal professionals.
Arbitration: Arbitration is a method for disposing
of legal disputes without a formal court trial. All parties to the dispute
consent to having their case heard before a panel of independent experts. The
parties must also agree to be subject to the panel’s rulings.
Asbestos lawsuit: A claim alleging injury,
typically arising from a cancer called mesothelioma, stemming from exposure to
asbestos. Asbestos lawsuits include personal injury suits brought directly by
the party exposed to asbestos and wrongful death suits brought by the families
of those who have died from exposure.
Attorney: Any individual authorized by a state or
federal court to practice law.
Bar examination: A state examination that is pre-requisite
to practicing law in the state.
Beneficiary: An individual entitled to receive
property or benefits in a will or trust.
Bill of particulars: A statement of the details of
the charge made against the defendant.
Breach of contract: The failure to perform a duty
when performance is due.
Brief: A party’s written argument, or
memorandum of law, in a case that typically contains a summary of the facts,
pertinent laws, and an argument of how the law favors the party under the
Casualty: An accident, especially one involving
serious injury or loss of life.
Civil law: Law involving non-criminal cases.
Personal injury claims, family law disputes, and contract disputes are civil law
Co-defendant: One of multiple parties defending
against a claim in a lawsuit.
Common law: A body of law developed in the
doctrine of the judicial branch of government. The common law system is rooted
in the medieval English court system and is still very much a part of modern
Comparative negligence: A method of assigning
negligence among multiple parties. Comparative negligence considers all parties
whose negligence contributed to a tort. The negligence is then allocated among
the parties at fault and damages are assigned proportionately.
Complaint: The legal document, also called a claim,
which is filed with a court that formally initiates a lawsuit.
Contingent fee: An agreement between a lawyer and
a client whereby the lawyer is paid a percentage of the damages awarded if the
client is awarded damages in the lawsuit.
Contributory negligence: A method for assigning
negligence that considers behavior by the plaintiff that contributes to the
resulting harm. At common law, any degree of contributory negligence bars the
plaintiff from collecting damages
Court trial: A trial heard before a judge, as
opposed to a jury trial that is heard before a judge and a jury.
Criminal law: The body of law involving cases
where the defendant faces criminal sanctions such as incarceration.
Damages: Monetary awards ordered to be paid as
compensation for injury or loss.
Default judgment: A ruling issued in the plaintiff’s
favor when the defendant fails to respond to a complaint in a timely manner.
Defendant: The person alleged to have caused the
Deposition: A discovery procedure in which the
lawyers representing the parties in a lawsuit question the opposing parties and
Discovery: Formal procedures that allow the
parties in a lawsuit to obtain information and evidence from one another and
from witnesses. Deposing witnesses, drafting interrogatories, making requests
for production of documents, and demanding independent medical examinations are
common discovery procedures.
Drunk driving: Referred to as driving while
intoxicated (DWI), driving under the influence (DUI), operating under the
influence (OUI). DWI, DUI, and OUI laws are aimed to prevent motorists from
operating vehicles while they are under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. A
motorist is considered unlawfully “intoxicated” when they exhibit a
blood alcohol concentration above a limit set in statute.
Emotional distress: Mental or psychological pain
that may give rise to damages in a personal injury lawsuit.
Evidence: Testimony, documents, and physical proof
presented at a trial aimed to convince or persuade the court of facts asserted
in the case.
Expert witness: A specialist in a subject area who
is called to present their opinion to the court. The judge maintains the
authority to determine that a prospective witness cannot be considered an expert.
Fiduciary: A person or institution who manages
another’s money or property who is required to exercise a standard care
imposed by law. Personal representatives, attorneys, executors, and trustees
commonly act as fiduciaries.
File: To submit documents to the official custody
of the court administrator to be entered into the appropriate case file or
Filing fee: The charge required by courts when
submitting various documents.
Finding: A court’s formal conclusion on
issues of fact in a case.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA): The federal
agency that establishes safety and quality standards for food, drugs, cosmetics,
and household substances.
General counsel: A corporation’s leading
Grievance: A complaint filed by an employee
regarding working conditions. A grievance may also refer to an alleged injury or
injustice giving rise to a complaint.
Gross negligence: Fault characterized by extreme
carelessness showing willful or reckless disregard for the consequences to the
safety or property of another. Gross negligence may give rise to punitive
damages above and beyond general damage awards.
Harassment: Systematic, annoying and continued
actions which include threats and demands. Harassment in the workplace may
subject the employer to a lawsuit for failure to protect the employee being
Harmless error: A mistake occurring at trial that
is considered not sufficiently harmful or prejudicial to merit the reversal of
the outcome of a trial.
Hearing: A formal proceeding to hear specific
issues of law or of fact before a court, legislature, or agency.
Hearsay: Second-hand information that usually
constitutes inadmissible evidence; hearsay evidence includes statements by a
witness recalling events related to the witness by someone else.
Hostile witness: a witness, also called an adverse
witness, whose relationship to the opposing party is such that his or her
testimony may be prejudicial to the opposing party
Impaneling: Selecting a jury from the list of
Impeachment of a witness: The presentation of
evidence intended to attack a witness’s credibility.
Implied contract: A contract, also called an
implicit contract, not expressed in writing but inferred by law. A product
manufacturer has an implied contract with the product’s consumers that the
product will serve its intended purpose.
Instructions: The judge’s explanation of the
applicable law, also referred to as jury instructions or jury charge, as
expressed to the jury prior to deliberations.
Intentional tort: A wrong perpetrated deliberately.
Joint and several liability: Legal doctrine by
which each party responsible for an injury is liable for the total damage award
where the other responsible parties cannot pay.
Judgment: A court’s final ruling in a
Jurisdiction: The court’s authority to hear
a case; the geographic area in which a court maintains authority to hear cases.
Jurisprudence: The study of law.
Jury: A group of citizens selected according to
law and assigned to try a question of fact or indict a person for an offense.
Jury trial: A trial heard before a judge and a
jury, as opposed to a court trial that is heard before a judge alone.
Justice of the peace: A judge who handles minor
legal issues such as traffic offenses. A justice of the peace may be an attorney,
though some states allow citizens to act as justice of the peace upon passing a
Kangaroo court: A court with no legal basis, also
slang for a court of law in which violations of legal processes are so bad that
justice is denied.
Kidnapping: The unlawful removal of a human being
by force and against his or her will.
Knowingly: With knowledge, willfully, or
intentionally with respect to a material element of an offense.
Law clerk: Commonly a lawyer or law school student
employed by a court or law firm to do legal research.
Lawsuit: A dispute between two people or entities
that is decided in a court of law. Also called a suit.
Liable: Legally responsible.
Libel: Published material regarding a person that
harms the person or their reputation. Libel is a tort.
Lien: An encumbrance or legal burden on property.
Limited jurisdiction: Restricted as to the types
of criminal and civil cases that may be heard. Family courts are court of
limited jurisdiction. They do not maintain the authority to hear a variety of
matters unrelated to family law.
Litigant: A party in a lawsuit.
Litigation: A legal action, lawsuit, and all
Material evidence: Testimony, documents, and
physical proof relevant to the issues in a case.
Mediation: A form of dispute resolution that does
not require a formal court trial. In mediation, the parties bring their dispute
to a neutral third party to reach a settlement.
Medical malpractice: A form of negligence where an
injury results from a medical professional’s or medical facility’s
failure to exercise adequate care, skill or diligence in performing a duty.
Mental anguish: Emotional suffering that may be
considered in awarding damages.
Mesothelioma: A type of cancer caused by exposure
Motion: A formal request of a court or judge
Motion in limine: A party’s request that
allegedly prejudicial information be disallowed in a case.
Negligence: Failure to use reasonable due care to
avoid a foreseeable harm to a person, place, or thing.
No-fault proceedings: A civil case in which
parties may resolve their dispute without a formal finding of error or fault.
Nonfeasance: Failure to perform an act which
should be performed.
Non-jury trial: Proceedings before a judge without
Notary public: One who assumes the function of
administering oaths and certifying documents.
Notice: Formal caution to a defendant in a civil
case that the lawsuit has been filed; any form of notification of a legal
Oath: In a trial, a solemn pledge made in
attestation of the truth of a statement or in verification of a statement made.
Objection: The process of taking exception to a
statement or procedure. The presiding judge maintains the authority to sustain
or overrule, allow or disallow, a party’s objection.
Occupational disease: Work-related illness;
ailment arising from workplace conditions.
Opening statement: An attorney’s initial
statement at trial outlining their intended arguments.
Opinion: A judge's written explanation of his or
her decision or the decision of the court as determined by a majority of judges.
A dissenting opinion may be written when one judge on a court disagrees with the
majority opinion. A concurring opinion agrees with the decision of the court but
offers further comment.
Order: A court’s or a judge’s express
mandate regarding a legal matter.
Personal injury: An injury to a person or a person’s
Personal property: An individual’s property
other than real estate.
Petitioner: The person filing an action or an
Plaintiff: The party who formally initiates a
Pleadings: The documents drafted by the parties to
a lawsuit and filed with the court.
Power of attorney: A formal instrument authorizing
another to act as one's agent.
Process server: A person certified to deliver
paperwork in a lawsuit.
Products liability: The liability arising from the
design, manufacture, and marketing of a product for damages caused by the
Quantum meruit: A Latin expression meaning, “as
much as he deserves.”
Quid pro quo: A Latin expression meaning “something
for something,” or the exchange of one item of value for another.
Quasi-contract: A legal obligation imposed in the
absence of an express agreement or contract.
Real property: Real estate, land, buildings, and
items attached to land.
Reasonable person: A hypothetical individual who
exercises an ordinary degree of reason, prudence, care, foresight, or
intelligence whose conduct, conclusion, or expectation in relation to a
particular circumstance or fact is used as an objective standard.
Recovery: The amount of compensation paid as a
result of a lawsuit or insurance settlement.
Respondeat superior: A Latin expression meaning “a
superior must answer” that provides that employers are responsible for the
acts and omissions of their employees and agents when those acts or omissions
occur within the scope of the employees’ duties.
Respondent: The person against whom an appeal is
Service of process: The delivering of writs,
summonses, and subpoenas by delivering them to the party named in the document.
Settlement: An agreement stipulated between the
parties to reconcile a dispute.
Standing: The legal right to bring a lawsuit. As a
general rule, only a person with something at stake has standing to bring a
Stare decisis: The legal doctrine providing that
courts should adhere to the legal principles established by courts deciding
similar cases in the past.
Statute: A legislative enactment; it may be a
single act of a legislature or a body of acts which are collected and arranged
for a session of a legislature.
Statute of frauds: A statutory requirement that
certain contracts are in writing.
Statute of limitations: A statutory requirement
establishing the period of time in which a lawsuit must be filed.
Subpoena: A legal document served upon a person to
compel them to produce evidence in their possession or to appear at a deposition
Taxable income: The income against which taxes are
applied. This typically includes gross income for businesses and adjusted gross
income for individuals less deductions and exemptions.
Temporary relief: Any court action or order that
serves to protect a party’s interest pending further action by the court.
Testimony: The evidence that a witness provides
Tort law: The body of law that allows one to be
compensated in the event that someone's carelessness, recklessness or
intentional misconduct injures or damages you or your personal belongings. There
are three main classes of torts: intentional torts; negligent torts; and strict
Transcript: A verbatim, written record of what was
said. Transcripts are commonly available to document events at a deposition,
trial, hearing, or other proceeding.
Unjust enrichment: Legal doctrine providing that
one person should be required to make restitution for the property or benefit
received when that benefit or property was unfairly obtained at the expense of
Uniform Commercial Code (UCC): Law governing
commercial transactions, provisions of which have been adopted by an
overwhelming majority of U.S. jurisdictions.
United States Attorney: A federal lawyer appointed
by the President to prosecute all criminal offenses or civil actions committed
against the US and to defend the government in all civil actions in which it is
brought as a defendant.
United States Bankruptcy Court: The judicial body
that oversees matters pertaining to bankruptcy and reorganization.
United States Court of Appeals: The judicial body
that hears contested decisions from federal district courts, bankruptcy courts,
and tax courts.
United States District Courts: The federal
judicial body that tries both criminal and civil actions and admiralty cases.
United States Supreme Court: The highest court in
the land, established by U.S. Constitution.
Unsecured debts: Amounts outstanding for which the
debtor has not pledged collateral to guarantee repayment.
Vacate: To set aside, to dismiss.
Venue: Authority of a court to hear a matter based
on geographical location.
Verdict: A legal or factual conclusion that forms
the basis for the court's judgment.
Vicarious liability: When a person who did not
actually cause an injury is held for the injury. Sometimes called imputed
Voir dire: An Anglo-French term meaning "to
speak the truth," voir dire is the preliminary process of determining
whether a witness or jury is competent.
Witness: A person who saw the events that are the
subject of a lawsuit. If the witness is not associated with the defendant or
plaintiff then they are called an independent witness. Witnesses are questioned
by a lawyer, or by a private investigator hired by the lawyer.
Workers’ compensation: A state program
overseeing the claims of workers who suffer work-related injury or occupational
Writ of certiorari: A Supreme Court order granting
or denying an appeal from a ruling in a lower court.
Wrongful death: A death occurring as a result of
XYY syndrome: An atypical phenomenon whereby a
male possesses an extra Y chromosome. XYY syndrome has been attributed to
aggressive and antisocial behavior.
Yellow-dog contract: An employment agreement
prohibiting membership in a labor union.
Yield: To surrender, give up, or relinquish.
Zealous advocate: The role that many attorneys
believe is their ethical duty to perform in order to adequately represent their
Zone-of-danger rule: A legal doctrine that may
give rise to the recovery of damages for negligent infliction of emotional
distress if the individual was fearful of personal harm and in the dangerous
area created by the defendant’s negligence.
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