Dictionary of Legal Terms
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 particular circumstances.
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 matters.
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 American jurisprudence.
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 injury.
Deposition: A discovery procedure in which the lawyers representing the parties in a lawsuit question the opposing parties and witnesses.
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 record.
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 attorney.
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 harassed.
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 potential jurors.
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 lawsuit.
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 test.
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 related proceedings.
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 to asbestos.
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 a jury.
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 proceeding.
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 reputation.
Personal property: An individual’s property other than real estate.
Petitioner: The person filing an action or an appeal.
Plaintiff: The party who formally initiates a lawsuit.
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 product.
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 taken.
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 lawsuit.
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 or proceeding.
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 under oath.
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 liability torts.
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 another.
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 liability,
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 disease.
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 another’s negligence.
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 clients.
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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