BONUS: PDF version contains all content found in this guide, plus 20 additional terms!
In the legal world, there seems like an endless amount of legal terms and jargon which can really confuse you and complicate things more when you’re not familiar with the terrain. Whether looking to educate yourself, or stuck in a tricky legal battle, you shouldn’t have to face the stresses of learning a whole dictionary of terms which could make or break a case.
It is beneficial to familiarize yourself on legal terminology, but you don’t need a textbook definition to help you make sense of the terms! (Unless you’re in law school or studying law, then study on!)
That is why we created a layman’s guide to legal terms and definitions. Leave the legal stuff to us!
A term used to differentiate two kinds of knowledge, arguments or justifications. This kind of knowledge is received independent of any experience.
Accord and Satisfaction
Accord can mean pleasant agreement all around during a business meeting, but it also refers to a creditor’s agreement to accept less than is legally due in order to wrap up a claim for monies owed. Once the accord and satisfaction is made and the amount paid, even though it is less than claimed owed, the debt is wiped out since the new agreement (accord) and payment (the satisfaction) replaces the original obligation. It is often used by creditors with “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” practicality.
When a person accused of a crime is legally freed by a court, usually because of a lack of evidence.
This term means for a particular situation, case or purpose. This term generally refers to something or someone appointed or introduced for a specific purpose and that purpose only.
Adjective Law (or Procedural Law)
That area of the law that deals with procedural rules of evidence, pleadings and practice.
The area of law that concerns government agencies. Administrative law comes into play at any point where a government agency steps in to alter the legal rights of citizens, corporations, or other entities.
Administrative Law Judge
The judge who presides over Social Security disability hearings. What does an administrative law judge do? Administrative Law Judges can administer oaths, take testimony, rule on questions of evidence, and make factual and legal determinations.
Describes a type of evidence that must be allowed in court because it’s relevant information for the judge or jury to consider in making a decision.
Admission refers to the time when a document is presented asking a party to admit or deny a certain fact. These requests are usually utilized during a trial.
Another summons when the original is not served on the defendant.
A written verified statement made under oath and notarized by a Notary Public. When you sign an affidavit, you’re simply attesting under law that you swear a written statement in the affidavit is true.
To state or assert what you expect to prove in a legal case.
Alternative dispute resolution (ADR)
Legal alternatives to traditional lawsuits including arbitration and mediation (also known as “settling out of court”).
The formal answer to a Complaint filed by the defendant (or defendants). Generally, it is not enough for the Answer to simply state “denied” to each allegation. Rather, the Answer must provide more specific denials for each allegation or a statement that the defendant reasonably investigated the allegation but does not possess the requisite information to admit or deny it. In addition to replying to the Complaint’s allegations, an answer will usually contain “new matter,” which sets forth certain defenses that the defendant possesses.
In law, an appeal is the process in which cases are reviewed, where parties request a formal change to an official decision. After a defendant has been convicted of a crime, she has the opportunity to appeal that decision, or apply to have her case re-tried.
A type of court that is able to review the decision of a trial court.
A method of alternative dispute resolution in which the disputing parties agrees to abide by the decision of an arbitrator. The person in charge of the arbitration acts like an official referee, helping both sides come to an agreement.
A legal proceeding in which the accused is brought before the court to formally read the complaint against him. An arraignment is meant to inform the accused of the charges against him/her, and the person is required to enter a plea whether he/she is guilty or not.
The transfer of legal rights, from one person to another.
In almost every state, employment is at-will. In short, it means the employer or employee may terminate the employment relationship for any reason or no reason at all. Of course, there are exceptions, most prominently, an employer may not terminate the employment relationship in violation of state or federal law.
Average weekly wage (AWW)
The sum total of all gross wages (before taxes) from every employer someone is working for at the time of injury. A formula is used to calculate a worker’s AWW. The AWW is used to determine the amount workers’ compensation will pay to an injured worker.
An intentional dishonest act by one party to a business transaction. It can be not fulfilling legal or contractual obligations, misleading the other side, entering into an agreement without the intention or means to fulfill it, or violating basic standards of honesty in dealing with others. If a bad faith finding of fact is made by a Judge, the party found in bad faith can be punished either monetarily or in a manner determined to be in the best interest of the aggrieved party.
A process in which someone arrested for a crime pays money to get released from police custody, and gets the money back after attending scheduled court appearances.
A member of the judge staff who is in charge of courtroom procedure and security. The bailiff may sometimes be called the "clerk."
This is a process governed by the federal law to help people, when they cannot or will not pay their bills.
Splitting a trial into two parts: a liability phase and a penalty phase.
Written argument presented to a court for the purpose of informing and persuading the judge. See Factum.
Burden of Proof
An obligation for a party to prove disputed facts.
The heading of each legal document, which contains the name of the court, the names of the parties, the case number, and the name of the document itself.
A collection of documents and evidence relating to a particular legal case.
Any set of rulings on law which is guided by previous court decisions called precedents.
a lawsuit involving a group of alleging the same cause of action against a common defendant. The group of people, or “class” are represented by one or more “named plaintiffs.”
Cause of Action
The reason for which a plaintiff files a complaint or suit against someone. This can be negligence, breach of contract, malpractice or defamation, to name a few. A cause of action is divided into elements, and each element must be proved to win the case.
A copy of a paper from a court file made by the court clerk, which has an official stamp on it. Usually, you must pay a fee for a certified copy.
It refers to the order of a court so that it can review the decision and proceedings in the lower court.
A trial judge who now has essentially the same responsibilities as a Circuit Judge but who, in English history, had somewhat different ones.
A legal demand for relief from a loss of compensation.
The part of our legal system that comes from social custom and previous court decisions.
Damages that are recovered for injury or economic loss. For instance, if someone is injured in a car accident and the party who injures them has to pay compensatory damages, the party at fault must cover cost of things such as the ambulance, doctors’ bills, hospital stays, medicine, physical therapy and lost wages.
A legal paper that starts a case.
Law prescribed by the written federal and state constitutions, as well as the interpretation and implementation of this law.
Delaying your court hearing to a later date, basically continuing the case.
An agreement between two or more parties to do or refrain from doing something; this often involves a promise of something in return for something of value. There are both written and oral contracts, though in some states oral contracts have little or no standing.
To make stronger or more believable by adding facts or evidence.
Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA)
The increase in Social Security disability benefits due to inflation.
In some situations, when a plaintiff sues a defendant, the defendant finds that they have a cause of action against the plaintiff as well. Typically, the defendant will allege the counterclaim and its supporting facts in the Answer. The use of counterclaims allows for the more efficient administration of the courts, rather than encouraging a defendant to file a an additional lawsuit that will need to administered separately.
An official stenographer employed by the court who writes down everything that takes place in the courtroom.
Credibility is simply another way of saying you are believable when you speak; the ability to appear honest and trustworthy when telling your side of the story. Credibility is central to almost every law suit. This is particularly true where the two sides are telling very different stories and a fact finder (either a judge or jury) is forced to choose one version over the other. When a client is credible, the entire case is more valuable. And while we often say something is "incredible" when we mean it is really good, in a courtroom, "incredible" means not believable, a lie.
When the other party’s lawyer gets to ask questions of a witness in court.
Lawyers generally use the word Damages to refer to the amount of money that a client recovers in a law suit. Of course, it can also be broken down into further categories, like economic damages (lost wages, lost profit, out of pocket costs, etc.) and non-economic damages (physical injuries, emotional distress, pain and suffering, scars, permanent disability, loss of enjoyment of life's pleasures, etc.). While business law suits have a different measure of damages (or the types of things that can be compensated), the idea is the same: damages are the loss suffered and that can be recovered in a law suit.
Date Last Insured (DLI)
The last date that someone is eligible for Social Security disability benefits.
This term translates to "in fact." It is commonly put in place of the word "actual" to demonstrate that a court will regard as a fact any authority that is being exercised, even if all the legal obligations may not have been satisfied.
Type of benefits issued if a worker dies as a result of a job injury or illness within 300 weeks of the date of injury or date of last exposure to a health hazard. The deceased worker’s spouse until he/she remarries and the workers’ children under 18 (or 23 if they are enrolled as full-time students) can collect compensation. There is also a $3000 funeral reimbursement.
The publication of the statement that injures a person’s reputation or a dirty trick against someone’s reputation. You’re basically “de-faming” someone.
A process where the court bars a party (plaintiff or defendant) from advancing claims or defenses because that party failed to do something required by the rules of court or statutes (law). While defaults can be a valuable tool in a lawsuit, judges often open (or lift) the default when the party complies with the requirement in question.
The person defending himself/herself in a law suit, or the person who is being sued. Although Defendants can bring their own claims against the person suing in the same case, called counterclaims, we generally think of a Defendant as the person accused of wrongdoing.
To consider the reasons for, and against, a decision or course of action.
A formal response to a complaint filed in a lawsuit, pleading for dismissal and saying, in effect, that even if the facts are true, there is no legal basis for a lawsuit. Examples include a missing necessary element of fact, or a complaint that is unclear. The judge can agree and “leave to amend,” giving the claimant the opportunity to amend the complaint. If it is not amended to the judge’s satisfaction, the demurrer is granted. (Some states use a motion to dismiss.)
A deposition allows a party (or more likely their attorney) to ask questions, in person, of another party or some other witness in front of a court reporter. The court reporter takes down the testimony verbatim and creates a written transcript of the entire deposition. Often depositions are used for a dual purpose: gathering information about the other side’s case and creating a record to prevent the other party from varying their story. If variations occur, it can be used to undermine a witness’s credibility at trial.
Reasonable care or attention to a matter; for instance, looking both ways before proceeding after stopping at a stop sign, washing your hands before cooking food in a restaurant or operating in a hospital or checking brakes and other mechanical components on tour buses at regular intervals. Due diligence denotes what a normal, responsible person would do under the same conditions.
When your lawyer asks questions, in court, of a witness who is on your side of the case.
A part of the process that most non-lawyers find the most perplexing. It is an opportunity, guided by specific rules, for each party to attempt to find out information about the other party and their case. The scope of discovery is quite broad, and a party may inquire into information that it would not actually be permitted to use at trial. Discovery typically takes the form of interrogatories, requests for production of documents and depositions.
The legal requirement that the state must respect all legal rights that are owed to a person. So, legally dealing with someone in a way that does not violate his constitutionally guaranteed rights.
Enter (An Order)
A judge or chancellor enters an order when he or she signs the order and the order is filed with the Court Clerk.
When a person is prevented from asserting something in court or bringing a particular claim because it would be considered unfair to do so.
Testimony of witnesses and documents which are presented to the court and considered by the court in making a decision.
Going before the court without notifying the other party. Some courts have special departments where motions without notice to the other party are heard, which are called ex parte departments.
An object or document shown in the courtroom as evidence in a case.
A person who is qualified by special knowledge or experience to give an opinion on the matter in dispute.
This term means a statement of fact that is brought before a court. It can also be interpreted as a brief.
Fair Market Value
The amount for which an item can be sold on the open market by a willing seller to a willing buyer.
Someone who is entrusted with rights and powers to act for the benefit of another person.
This term indicates a particular court that has jurisdiction to hold a trial relating to a specific petition or suit.
The entire process of petitioning for and getting a court order directing a person or entity (garnishee) to hold funds they owe to someone who allegedly is in debt to another person, often after a judgment has been rendered. Some income like social security disability benefits and workers compensation payments are exempt from garnishment.
Guardian Ad Litem
A court appointed adult responsible for determining and representing the best interest of a minor or someone who is otherwise incompetent.
An order that brings a state prisoner before a federal court to determine if their imprisonment is lawful.
Hearing in Damages List
This is where a default has entered and the case goes forward to determine what the damages will be since the entry of the default means that liability (see below) is already proven/established.
A report of another person’s statement, and as a result is of suspect accuracy and authenticity. Hearsay is generally not admissible in court, but there are numerous exceptions (which would put you to sleep if i discussed them at length). Many witnesses have a difficult time not saying “Joe told me…” which will result in the other party objection.
A jury that, after being given adequate time to deliberate, cannot agree upon a verdict.
Exemption from a legal duty or penalty, as in, if you're protected against something, you have immunity to it.
Impairment Rating Evaluation (IRE)
An insurance carrier-issued medical examination for those who receive total-disability benefits through workers’ compensation. It can only be issued two years after receiving total-disability benefits and may occur two times a year per injury. If the injured worker is found to be more than 50 percent disabled, then he/she continues collecting total-disability benefits indefinitely. If he/she is found less than 50 percent disabled, then their benefits will be reduced to a partial-disability status and benefits will stop after 500 weeks.
Circumstances can show that there was a binding contract between parties, even if not reduced to writing. If a Judge finds it would be unfair to the performing party to deny the contract and/or that the non-performing party would obtain an unjust enrichment based on denial of the contract, a finding of an implied contract can be found. For example, an implied contract can be found where there is discussion between the parties about doing business, some agreement as to terms not reduced to writing and then one party ships goods or performs services and the receiving party does not pay.
Evidence that attempts to establish someone’s guilt.
Independent Medical Examination
An employer-issued medical examination that can occur up to two times per year.
A court order directing the defendant to do or not to do a particular thing. Failure to obey an injunction constitutes contempt of court, which is punishable by fine or imprisonment.
Interrogatories are written questions that must be answered under oath. The party answering interrogatories must answer truthfully, but they are only required to provide the information that is requested, nothing more. As a result, crafting interrogatories in a manner so that they elicit the information required is a difficult task.
Act by which a court will recognize the existence of a certain fact without the production of substantiating evidence if the fact is so notorious or well known (or so authoritatively attested) that it cannot reasonably be doubted.
Determines whether or not a court has the power to render a judgment and is divided into two different types: personal and subject-matter. A has personal jurisdiction if the party has enough contact with the geographic area (i.e. county, state or district). For example, if you have an office in Pennsylvania, you most likely can’t be sued in Utah, if you don’t do business in Utah. A court has subject-matter jurisdiction if statute allows it to hear that type of case. For example, a bankruptcy court only has subject-matter jurisdiction to hear bankruptcy cases.
A group of people temporarily selected from a district whose duty is to listen to matters of fact and find the truth.
A bribe or incentive paid to someone who helped one make money. A kickback is a misappropriation of funds that enriches a person of power (who uses the power or influence) to make a different individual, organization, or company richer.
The term we use to say that a defendant has responsibility for the damages. Put another way, the purpose of a law suit is to prove that one party is liable for the injuries and damages suffered by the other.
A charge or claim on property belonging to another, for the satisfaction of a debt or duty. For example, When someone doesn't make payments on a loan, the bank may put a lien on that person's property, claiming ownership of that property until the overdue payment is received.
A type of settlement that offers one large amount rather than weekly payments for lost wages.
Doing something illegal or morally wrong. Malfeasance includes dishonesty and abuse of authority.
In order for us to prove that a doctor to committed malpractice, we need to prove four things: The doctor had a duty to provide care to the patient; The doctor failed to provide care in accordance with the standard in the community; The doctor's failure to provide treatment within the standard of care was, to a reasonable medical probability, a substantial cause of the injury suffered (this is also called causation); and The patient/client suffered a compensable injury (damages).
Hears cases like a judge. A master's decision is reviewed by a judge before becoming final.
An attempt to settle a dispute between two conflicting parties using an impartial third party rather than bringing a case to trial.
A federal health insurance plan available when Americans retire or collect Social Security disability.
Mens Rea (menz ray-ah)
Latin for a “guilty mind”; mens rea is used to describe a culpable state of mind, the criminal intent of the individual when committing a criminal act. For some crimes, this intent must have been present for a person to be guilty of the crime.
A crime less serious than a felony, punishable by or imprisonment for less than a year.
Motions and Pleadings List
This is where the parties move the case forward by filing complaints, answers, defenses and various other papers with court. These documents, called pleadings, move the case forward. There are also papers called motions that essentially ask the court to make a decision as to who is right or wrong on a particular issue or issues.
A trial rendered invalid due to a procedural error. They are stopped before the jury or judge can render a verdict.
Ne Bis in Idem
This term translates to "not twice for the same." It asserts that no one legal action may be initiated two times for the same cause of action.
At its most basic, Negligence is defined as follows: A party has a duty to another person – like a driver has a duty to remain in his own lane; A party breaches (or breaks) the duty – like the driver who crosses over the yellow line; The breach of the duty causes injury (this is also called causation); and The "innocent" party suffers a compensable injury (damages). However, negligence can also be applied to a whole range of situations, from failure to shovel snow off stairs, to failure to maintain a deck, to failure to properly represent facts in a business deal, to many other scenarios.
A plea of “no contest.” This means that the defendant in a criminal matter accepts the punishment without admitting guilt.
A swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. An oath would subject the one taking the oath to a prosecution for the crime of perjury if he/she knowingly lies in a statement. If you’re under oath and say you were injured on the job when you were really injured in your home, you’re lying under oath.
An illness that develops directly as a result of job duties.
Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR)
This office holds hearings, issues decisions and reviews appeals for Social Security disability benefits.
Old Age Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI)
The trust funds that hold Social Security benefits.
The official written statement of a case, the court’s decision and its reasons for reaching the decision it did, otherwise known as the explanation of a court's judgment. A legal opinion accompanies an order or ruling in a case, laying out the rationale and legal principles for the ruling. (Not actually much in the way of an opinion --- more like an explanation.)
A judge’s decision, usually in writing. In some cases, each party will give the judge a proposed (or sample) order, and the judge will make changes to and sign the order that the judge decides is the right one.
People or entities involved in lawsuits, transactions, contracts or accidents, including the plaintiff (the person who brings a lawsuit) and the defendant (the person defending himself in the case).
A conditional release of a prisoner before their sentence is complete.
Partial Disability Benefits
Disability status under workers’ compensation, meaning that someone has the ability to earn some amount of wages, but may not be fully recovered from an injury. Partial disability benefits are payable up to 500 weeks.
The person who brings a lawsuit, sometimes also called a claimant. A plaintiff is the one who seeks to recover damages for a wrong committed by a defendant.
An agreement between the defense and the prosecution without a trial taking place in which the defendant pleads guilty to some or all of the charges against them in exchange for a compromise from the prosecution.
This term is literally translated to "penalty," "punishment" or "pain."
A case or issue that has already been decided by a court and influences future decisions.
In some cases, a Complaint (or Answer) is faulty or violates the Rules of Civil Procedure (the rules governing how a civil lawsuit is conducted). In this case, the party receiving the Complaint (or Answer) files Preliminary Objections (also known as POs). POs are also set forth in numbered paragraphs and state each problem with the pleading in question. If a party does not raise a specific objection, they cannot bring it up later. It is truly use it or lose it.
This term is translated to "on its first appearance" or even "at first sight." This means that an issue appears obvious upon examination and based on the facts.
A person who represents himself in court alone without the help of the lawyer.
A court-imposed sentence with restrictions that allows a convicted person to be released into the community under supervision rather than spending time in jail.
When an attorney brings a criminal case against a defendant.
A temporary court order to protect someone from further or irreparable damage while further legal action is pending. For example, a temporary restraining order is a provisional remedy to help keep someone safe until a hearing to decide if a permanent restraining order is needed; likewise, a temporary injunction to stop the destruction of a building can keep it from being destroyed while the court decides whether it is a landmark.
Damages awarded over and above compensatory damages for punishment. If the act causing the injury was committed out of negligence or malice, punitive damages serve not only as a punishment, but as an example or deterrent to others. It also helps put the injured party on a level playing field. For instance, an individual who loses a leg when hit by a drunk driver cannot be awarded a new leg, but a monetary award can help that person face the resultant obstacles.
A motion to quash asks the judge for an order setting aside or nullifying an action, such as "quashing" service of a summons when the wrong person was served.
This term translates to "the reason." It can be thought of as the point in any case upon which the ultimate judgment depends.
The official transcript of a trial, including all evidence introduced in the case.
Request for Production of Documents
This is a document where a party is asked to admit or deny a specific fact, and his answer can be used at trial to conclusively establish that the fact is true if admitted (or false if denied).
Requests for Admission
This is a document where a party is asked to admit or deny a specific fact, and his answer can be used at trial to conclusively establish that the fact is true if admitted (or false if denied).
Right to Work
Right to work states (not to be confused with at-will employment) are those with statutes prohibiting agreements between employers and unions which require either membership or payment of union dues as a condition of employment. In right to work states, an employee may work for an employer and decide if he or she would like to join a union. In non-right to work states, that same employee may be required to join the union and pay union dues, regardless of whether they want to join the union or pay the dues, in order to be hired or retain their job.
Scheduled Loss of Use
That is a figure based upon the percentage loss of use that you have sustained to your hand.
The act of isolating someone during the course of a trial
Resolving the dispute, without a judge's ruling, a mutually acceptable out-of-court agreement between the defendant and the plaintiff.
Social Security Disability Insurance
A federal disability insurance policy that Americans pay with every paycheck they earn in case they become disabled and can no longer work.
Defamatory oral statements and gestures, in which someone tells one or more persons an “untruth” about another, which will harm the reputation of the person defamed. (See Defamation)
Specific Loss Benefits
Type of benefits issued in specific amounts if someone suffers an amputation or loses the ability to use certain body parts. The amount and length of time the benefits are paid is determined based on the body part that is affected.
Latin for “to stand by things decided,” to adhere to precedents of earlier cases as sources of law. When an issue has already been ruled upon by a court, other cases involving the same issue must receive the same response from that court or lower courts.
A written law passed by Congress or another legislative body.
Statute of Limitations
Every lawsuit must be brought within a certain period of time from the date the injury occurred (or was discovered). Every cause of action has a different limitation of time, generally between six months and 20 years, with most falling between one and four years. Due to the time limitations imposed by the statute of limitations, it is best to investigate a lawsuit as soon as you discover you or your business have been harmed in some way.
A financial device most often used to resolve personal physical injury claims or lawsuits. They work by taking the money that would otherwise be paid in a lump sum and investing it so there is a stream of payments over a period of time. A structured settlement is usually funded by the defendant buying annuities from highly-rated life insurance companies. If a structured settlement is used to fund a personal physical injury claim, it provides the payments tax-free.
A court-ordered request for someone to testify, produce evidence, or both.
When one party takes on the legal rights of another.
A request that the court find in favor of one party before a trial takes place. The bar for granting summary judgment is very high. Essentially, the party is asking the judge to decide that, given the facts in evidence, no jury could possibly find against them. Summary judgment is difficult to win, and therefore, it isn’t requested often.
To testify means to make a statement (or testimony) under oath, whether it be at trial, at a deposition or in an affidavit (a written statement made under oath). When we talk about people testifying credibly, we mean that their testimony was both truthful and believable.
Oral or written evidence given under oath by a witness in a deposition or in court.
Refers to another party that is related to the issue at hand.
From French for "wrong," a civil wrong or wrongful act, whether intentional or accidental, from which injury occurs to another. (For your car insurance, you can choose full tort or limited tort. You're able to choose full tort, which allows you to sue for pain and suffering, or you can choose limited tort and forfeit the right to compensation for pain and suffering.)
Total Disability Benefits
Disability status under workers’ compensation, meaning that someone does not have the ability to earn wages because of his/her injuries. Total disability benefits are payable indefinitely if injuries do not improve.
A higher court’s agreement with a previous court’s decision.
A review issued by the insurance carrier of an injured worker’s medical bills to determine the “reasonableness and necessity” of treatment. A utilization review organization will contact the worker’s doctor, review medical bills and then issue a report. Workers can send a letter outlining why treatment is necessary.
The county where the case should be heard
The jury’s conclusions or the judge’s decision based upon the evidence presented in a case.
An attempt by the insurance company to suspend workers’ compensation benefits by finding a job injured workers can try.
A French/Latin phrase that means “to speak the truth.” In the law, this refers to the process of questioning jurors and witnesses to determine their competency in court.”
A court order allowing someone to take an action.
One who is called to court to testify in order to tell what he or she knows about the case
A combination of work history, earnings and the amount of money you pay in Social Security taxes that determine if you are eligible for Social Security disability.
A state-based insurance program that provides payment for lost wages and medical expenses after a work-related injury
An order issued by a legal authority, usually a court.