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Defining Common Personal Injury Terms

Most people have never filed a personal injury lawsuit before, and for newcomers to the legal process, it can be overwhelming to interpret all the terms and jargon. At Habbas & Associates, our experienced attorneys have over 200 years of experience helping our clients succeed, whether in the courtroom or at the negotiating table.

It’s our goal to help make the legal process clear, providing prompt and accurate answers to your questions as we litigate your case. In this post, we’ll offer some definitions for common personal injury terms, and what it could mean for your case.

Personal Injury Lawsuit Terms

Here are a few basic terms you can expect to be used throughout your case:


Plaintiff is a legal term for any person, group of people, or organization pursuing a civil lawsuit. When you sue someone in an injury claim, you are considered to be the plaintiff.


The person, group of people, or organization allegedly responsible for causing injuries in a civil lawsuit. There may be one or multiple defendants depending on the complexity of your personal injury claim and the type of case.

Torts and Intentional Torts

A tort is a legal term for any wrongful action that is not considered to be a crime or a violation of a contract, but which has hurt another person. If a tort is considered to be “intentional” – such as in the case of a violent assault – it may make the defendant both criminally and civilly liable. Torts are almost always the cause of action in a civil lawsuit, from negligence to wrongful death.


Negligence is the most commonly-cited tort in personal injury cases. To prove negligence in an injury lawsuit, you must show that the defendant had a “duty of care” to act with care and caution, but that they failed to meet this duty. Negligence can look different depending on the nature of your case: However, there are some shared elements across case types.

Negligence involves all of the four elements:

  1. Defendant had a duty or obligation to the plaintiff
  2. Defendant violated their duty
  3. Defendant caused damage to the plaintiff as a result
  4. Defendant’s actions resulted in actual, specific damages

Duty or Standard of Care

In many circumstances, we have a “duty of care” to protect other people from harm, as much as it is reasonably possible to do so. When determining the duty of care, courts will ask whether the defendant had ample time, ability, and knowledge to inform you about a hazard to your safety. In some cases involving professional liability, such as medical malpractice, this is called the “standard of care,” as the professional’s actions will be measured against the accepted standard for their industry.

Statute of Limitations

The time limit placed on when you can file a personal injury lawsuit. The statute of limitations varies from state to state, but it is typically between 2 and 4 years from the date that the injury happened. Wrongful death torts often have a shorter statute of limitations from personal injury claims.


This is the compensation you are seeking in a lawsuit. Damages are intended to “make the plaintiff whole,” usually by a lump sum payment. There are two main types of damages: economic and non-economic. Economic damages include medical expenses, property damage, lost wages, and other specific losses as a result of your accident. Non-economic damages can include other factors, such as pain and suffering and loss of companionship.

There is also a third type of damages known as “punitive damages.” These are awarded only in extreme cases of negligence. In some states, limits or “caps” may be placed on punitive damages or non-economic damages.


Most states observe a “fault” system for car accidents, but a few have opted to apply a “no-fault” legal theory instead. In a no-fault state, every car owner must have a personal injury protection or PIP plan with their car insurance, and they will collect from their own insurance provider after an accident. You can only pursue a personal injury lawsuit for car accidents once you’ve met the right conditions for your state.

Expert Witness

An expert witness is an individual considered to be an authority in their field, from physicians to lawyers to economists. In most personal injury cases, you will need expert witness testimony for an effective case strategy, as they can demonstrate to the court the value of your claim.

Accident Report

In many personal injury cases, there will be an official police report or a detailed recording provided by a medical staff member. This is often called the “accident report” as a shorthand.

Prayer for Relief

Also known as the “Demand for Relief,” this is a complaint letter addressed by the plaintiff to the court, detailing the specific damages incurred during an accident. This will include the amount of compensation you are seeking in a lawsuit.


Defendants are required to submit a response to the plaintiff’s prayer for relief, or complaint, within a certain period. While the defendant’s answer can come in many different forms depending on what state you live in, the answer commonly allows them to deny the plaintiff’s allegations from the start, or to poke holes in the demands.

Strict Liability

In most personal injury cases, a fault theory will be applied to your case, as the defendant may not always have a specific duty of care to protect you from hazards. In a case governed by strict liability, however, the plaintiff does not need to prove negligence or fault to recover damages. Strict liability applies to actions that are obviously harmful, such as keeping wild animals or transporting dangerous explosives.

Most commonly, product liability cases will be considered to fall under strict liability doctrine. This means that you may not need to show negligence if a company produced an obviously hazardous product.

Preponderance of Evidence

Most people are familiar with the standard of evidence in criminal cases, which is that the accused may only be convicted when the facts point “beyond a reasonable doubt” that they committed the crime. The standard of evidence is lower in a civil lawsuit, as jail time is not a remedy in these cases and there has not always been a violation of the law.

In civil cases, you will instead need to show that there is a “preponderance of the evidence.” That means a jury or a judge does not need to be entirely certain that the defendant committed negligence or another tort that harmed you. Rather, they must simply believe that it is more likely to be true than not true, owing to the availability of the evidence and the strength of the case.


A settlement is an agreed-upon amount of money given by the defendant to compensate the plaintiff for damages (as opposed to a verdict, in which the court forces the defendant to pay damages even when they still dispute the terms.) If the defendant agrees to pursue a settlement, you will likely not need to head to court for a trial. Settlement negotiations can begin from nearly any point in the case, and it is generally considered to be faster to secure a settlement than to head to court.

Need Help With Your Injury Case?

No matter what kind of injury you’ve suffered, you shouldn’t have to navigate the complex civil justice system on your own. At Habbas & Associates, our experienced team can help you fight for justice and secure a fair recovery for yourself and your family. Known across California for our skill in taking on complex injury cases, we will fight to ensure that your voice is heard, whether you ultimately receive a settlement or go to court.

Call (888) 387-4053 for a consultation with our experienced team.

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