Personal Injury Glossary

Authored by Wendy Witt, Esq.

Kelly was seriously injured when a truck plowed through an intersection and t-boned her car. She was scared, stressed, in pain, and unsure how to proceed. She wondered whether she should hire a personal injury lawyer. She thought she should but was nervous about making the call - after all, lawyers are intimidating.

Yes, they are. Lawyers are intimidating, without even trying to be. However, this article will help.

First, please allow us to ensure you that personal injury attorneys are usually very empathetic professionals, who are used to dealing with injured people. Both the personal injury (PI) attorney and her staff will treat you professionally, with kindness and respect. She helps people in your situation every day.

Second, we've discovered that injured persons feel more comfortable dealing with a personal injury law office when they understand the related legal jargon. To increase your comfort level, we've created this "Personal Injury Keyword Glossary", full of commonly used words and examples of personal injury cases.

Third, we'll guide you in the identification and selection of a personal injury lawyer in the "How to Find and Select a Personal Injury Attorney" section. (Spoiler Alert: The key is choosing an attorney you trust and feel comfortable with.)

Personal Injury Keyword Glossary

Compensatory Damages

"Damages" is the legal word for the losses sustained by an injured person.

"Compensatory damages" usually refers to actual losses such as lost wages and medical bills; however, some states include "pain and suffering" in compensatory damages as well.

In addition to compensatory damages and recovery for pain and suffering, punitive damages may be awarded to punish especially egregious behavior.

For example, Leonard's wife, Allison, was killed when her car exploded when it was rear ended by another vehicle. In addition to suing the negligent driver, who crashed into Allison's car, Leonard sued the carmaker for wrongful death and was awarded $2 million for compensatory damages and $20 million in punitive damages.

Damages

"Damages" refers to the amount of money it takes to put the injured person back in the place he would have been but for the defendant's negligence. Proving damages is a necessary part of proving negligence and getting financial compensation.

To emphasize, financial compensation (also called "damages") is awarded in an attempt to put the injured person back in the position he would have been but for the injury.

For example, Linus fell down the steps of his friend's apartment building and was injured. He proved in court that the landlord was negligent in not providing adequate lighting and a handrail. They jury awarded Linus $300,000 is damages to cover Linus's medical bills, lost wages, lost benefits, and pain and suffering.

Defendant

The "defendant" is the person being sued.

  • Personal injury cases are civil cases (not criminal cases).
  • The person who brings a personal injury case is the "plaintiff" and the person being sued is the "defendant".

For example, Karen experienced difficulty during labor and delivery. Her baby, Ryan, was born with cerebral palsy. Because Karen and her husband, Todd, believed that Dr. Parker was negligent during the delivery, they sued her for medical malpractice.

In this example, Karen and Todd are the plaintiffs and Dr. Parker is the defendant.

Dram Shop Laws

Drunk drivers kill and injure tens of thousands of people each year. If you are a drunk driving victim, you may be able to recover financial compensation for your losses both from the driver as well as from the licensed drinking establishment (who served the drunk driver who hurt you).

Dram shop laws allow financial recovery if a bar, pub, tavern, or restaurant served a visibly intoxicated person or knowingly served a minor. Consult with a qualified personal injury attorney licensed in your state to determine whether your state has a dram shop law and if it applies in your individual case.

For example, Joey and Ben had had a few too many when they staggered into Rick's Pub. Their buddy, Keith, gave them a few shots to celebrate Joey's upcoming wedding. On their way home, Ben drove; he swerved into an oncoming car and the driver, Jennifer, was killed.

Jennifer's family may be able to successfully recover from Rick's Pub and receive compensation for loss of consortium, lost wages, medical bills, property damage, funeral and burial costs, lost benefits, pain and suffering, and the like.

NOTE: Dram shop laws are similar to social host liability, which holds individuals responsible to third parties if their intoxicated guests cause injury.

Elder Abuse - Nursing Home Abuse

Sadly, often seniors and the elderly are subjected to physical, mental, verbal, sexual, and/or financial abuse. Caretakers - nursing home staffers and family members - are most commonly the culprits.

Signs of elder abuse include:
  • Sudden change in demeanor.
  • Withdrawal, sadness, crying, rocking, anger, and unusual acting out.
  • Refusal to communicate and any secretiveness.
  • Disappearance of personal items, changes in estate planning documents, change in titling of financial accounts, withdrawals of cash from ATMS, or unexplained credit card charges.
  • Multiple trips to the emergency room.
  • Malnutrition and dehydration.
  • Bed sores.
  • Bruises, cuts, broken bones, and burns.

Often the victim doesn't report the abuse because of embarrassment, confusion, fear, and dependency. If you suspect abuse, do not hesitate - better safe than sorry - get your loved one to safety immediately.

  • Contact your area agency on aging, the nursing home administrator, elder law attorney, personal injury attorney, and/or the police.
  • If you're leaving a senior or elder alone with caretakers, hidden cameras will let you know what's really going on when you're not there.

For example, Rachael's mom, Eloise, was starting to get overwhelmed at times and Rachael asked if she wanted help with bill paying and household chores. When Rachael reviewed the credit card bill she saw billings for a TV church in the amount of $5,000 and $1,000 at the grocery store.

Estate Planning

Often injured persons come into large sums of money at once.

  • The money is meant to cover medical bills, lost wages, lost benefits, and property damage - past, present, and future.
  • There may also be pain and suffering and/or punitive damages. The dollar amount is sometimes in the millions.

Estate planning is necessary for all adults, everyone age 18 or older, including those who receive lawsuit proceeds. Why?

  • If you blow all the money, you'll have nothing left to pay future bills.
  • Wills and trusts are used to get assets to the loved ones you wish to benefit - in protected trust shares - so the assets can't be seized by creditors.
  • You need a will to appoint guardians for your minor children and to appoint a personal representative.
  • You need powers of attorney to appoint agents to act on your behalf and in your best interests for financial matters and health care decisions.
  • You need up-to-date effective estate planning documents to avoid outside interference. If you have no plan or your documents are old and outdated - or plan just don't work:
    • The court will decide who raises your children and handles their money and who handles your money if you become incapacitated or die.

      Without estate planning, you'll have no control over these appointments. What if your drunken sister-in-law fights for the kids because she wants access to your money?

    • State intestacy laws will decide who gets your assets.

      You'll have no say in the matter. What if your redneck cousin, Larry Alan, and his toothless wife inherit your assets instead of your partner?

    • Depending on your state, either state law or the court will decide who makes health care decisions if you cannot.

      What if your estranged and wacko mother is appointed to make decisions about your health care?

For example, Kara was seriously injured in a car accident and received a settlement from the drunk driver who injured her. The settlement was $1.5 million.

Kara died a year later, leaving 2 minor children and 1 18-year old. She had no estate plan.

  • The 18-year old received her share of the inheritance (about $500,000) outright. There was no guidance or protection of the assets. She had a lot of friends, bought a fast car, drugs, booze, and dropped out of college. The money was gone within 18 months.
  • The $1 million for the minor children was managed by Kara's sister, Bambi, who gained custody in a court battle. What do you think happened to that money?

As there are attorneys, who focus their practice on personal injury law, there are also attorneys who focus their practice on estate planning. You can use www.attorneys.org to find an estate planning attorney who is a good fit for you.

Hazardous Exposure

Some personal injury cases are based upon hazardous exposure, which may cause breathing difficulties, headaches, malaise, disease (including cancer), and other illnesses. Common culprits include asbestos, mold, natural gas, chemicals, and hazardous waste.

Ask your personal injury attorney who potential legally responsible parties would be. Examples of responsible parties would include an employer, landlord, and building owner or manager as well as the companies who manufactured, distributed, or sold the hazardous material.

For example, Dana's landlord failed to fix a leaky roof in a timely manner and mold grew in the insulations, walls, and ceiling. Dana got very sick and was able to recover from her landlord.

Insurance Adjuster

Most folks mistakenly think that they can trust their own insurance company; however, they can't - and either can you. No insurance company - neither your own nor someone else's insurance company is trustworthy. Why?

Because their ONLY goal is to make you go away for the least amount of money possible. They do not care about your illness or injury, your family, your bills, or your life. Money is not only the bottom line; it's the only line.

If you've been injured in a motor vehicle accident:
  • It's okay to report a traffic accident to your own insurance company. Don't say anything other than there was an accident, the date, time, and other parties involved. If you've already hired your personal injury attorney, you can provide her name and contact information.
  • Do not answer any questions poised by any insurance company.
  • Do not let them tape you because your words will be used against you.
  • Know that your PI lawyer will handle all communications with all insurance companies.

We understand that you want to trust the insurance companies, but you can't. Please take our friendly reminder that Flo, the Allstate guy, Mayhem, and all those nice looking State Farm people are just actors selling a product.

Major insurance companies have been caught committing fraud to cheat customers out of insurance proceeds they've paid for. It happens all the time.

Liable

If you cause injury to another, you will be held financially responsible for the legal damages resulting from that injury.

For example, Gracie was distracted during surgery and left a sponge in her patient, Steve. In a case for malpractice, Gracie will likely be held liable for Steve's subsequent injuries.

Medical Malpractice

Most folks automatically think of medical doctors when they hear the term, "medical malpractice". If you did the same, you're not alone.

  • However, medical practice liability applies to all medical professionals such as dentists, chiropractors, physical therapists, mental health experts, and the like.
  • Keep in mind that a bad result does not necessarily mean medical malpractice occurred. There must have been some kind of breach of duty - such as a failure to follow medical protocol - to warrant liability. A PI lawyer will let you know whether you have a case - or not.

For example, the anesthesiologist gave Maria a medication that she was allergic too. She stopped breathing and to save her life a breathing tube had to be inserted. During the emergency insertion, several teeth were knocked out, and she suffered mouth and throat injury.

  • If a reasonable anesthesiologist knew or should have known that Maria was allergic to the medication, a jury would likely find him guilty of medical malpractice.
  • For example, if the allergy was noted in her chart, he knew or should have known of the allergy.

Negligence

Most personal injury cases are based on a theory of negligence, recognizing that we all have a legal duty to act with reasonable care. If we don't and we hurt someone, we may be found negligent and, therefore, financially responsible for compensating the person we've injured.

For example, John hired his 14-year old neighbor, Mike, to shovel the sidewalk in front of his rental building. Mike shoveled the walkway but not the steps and a deliveryman fell on the steps and broke his leg.

The deliveryman sued John, alleging that he was negligent, and he was able to receive monies for his injuries.

If you bring a negligence claim, you must prove 4 things:
  • The defendant had a duty to you.
  • The defendant breached that duty.
  • The breach of duty caused you injury.
  • That injury caused you legal damages.
In our example above:
  • A property owner has a duty to a deliveryman to keep his property clear of hazards.
  • The steps were not shoveled and properly maintained.
  • The deliveryman would not have fallen but for the failure to maintain the steps.
  • The deliveryman suffered legally recoverable damages including medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

NOTE: Keep in mind that in negligence cases, the real issues tend to revolve around causation ("the breach of duty caused injury") and damages (how much did the injury really cost you) - not whether there is a duty or not; there usually is a duty to act or to refrain from acting in some way.

Pain and Suffering

As you might surmise, the term "pain and suffering" refers to the emotional trauma, mental distress, and physical pain. In the personal injury world, pain and suffering is recoverable, meaning that the injured person can receive financial compensation for his pain and suffering.

For example, Dr. Bradley operated on Josie while intoxicated. While holding the scalpel, his hand jerked and he cut her face. She suffered physical pain, mental distress, and emotional trauma from the injury and resulting scar. Among other recoveries, Josie is entitled to the financial equivalent of her pain and suffering.

Personal Injury Attorney - PI Lawyer - Accident Attorney

Attorneys often focus their practice on a particular area of law because legal practice is complex and dynamic. No one can be good at everything. A personal injury attorney represents injured people and helps them to navigate the legal, medical, and insurance systems. The goal is for the injured person to be put in the position she would have been but for the injury.

Example personal injury cases include:
  • Motor Vehicle Accidents
  • Dog Bites
  • Nursing Home Abuse
  • Workers Compensation
  • Wrongful Death
  • Mesothelioma
  • Defective Product Cases
  • Drunk Driving Accidents
  • Slip and Falls
  • Food Poisoning
  • Fires
  • Explosions
  • Meningitis Outbreaks
  • Legionnaire's Disease

For example, While out for her daily walk, Diane was attacked by a neighborhood dog. She suffered emotional trauma and physical injury. Two surgeries were needed. She called a personal injury attorney to find out whether she had a case. She was worried about her medical bills and the attorney assured her she did have a personal injury case.

Plaintiff

The injured person, who files the initial paperwork with the court, is referred to as the "plaintiff". The person, who is accused of injuring the plaintiff, is referred to as the "defendant".

For example, James's car hit Caroline while she was riding her bike. She was injured and filed a lawsuit against him to recover for her medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering and so forth. In this case, Caroline is the plaintiff and James is the defendant.

Product Liability

If a product such as a tire, hair dryer, or chemical causes injury, the manufacturer, wholesaler, and/or retailer can all be held liable for resulting injuries.

  • The product defect may be caused by a design defect, meaning that all of the products are designed in a way that causes injury.
  • Or, the defect may be a manufacturing defect, meaning that only the specific product that caused injury had a problem with it.
  • An injured person can sue several defendants for injuries sustained from a defective product.

For example, Leslie's hairdryer caught on fire, causing serious scalp and facial burns or the tires on Lester's truck blew out, causing him to lose control and crash into an oncoming minivan.

Punitive Damages

A jury has the option of awarding "punitive damages" to punish a defendant's egregious actions. Punitive damages tend to be large sums.

For example, Lawyer Rex grabbed a Secretary Bonnie's breast and made crude comments. The law firm, though informed of repeated problems with Lawyer Rex, failed to do anything about it.

Secretary Bonnie was awarded $225,000 in compensatory damages (for actual financial losses) and $6.9 million in punitive damages (to punish the law firm's inaction).

Slip and Fall Case

You may have a "slip and fall" personal injury case if you've fallen, slipped, or tripped because a property owner (or the person in control of the property) has not acted reasonably and with due diligence in permitting the dangerous conditions to exist.

Example cases would include falling on a wet or icy surface, insufficient lighting, no handrail on steps, or a cement block in the middle of a sidewalk.

For example, Caroline, a visiting nurse, fell down the stairs at a patient's home because toys were left on the stairs. Or, Jacque fell in a puddle of spilled milk in the grocery store.

Social Host Liability

Social host liability, the law in some states, allows an injured third party to sue the individual who served alcohol to a guest, adult, or minor.

For example, Jim and Dottie held their annual Christmas party. Rodney, one of their guests, drove home from the party drunk and killed 3 people in a car accident.

In addition to Rodney's obvious responsibility, if Jim and Dottie's state has a social host liability law, they may also be held liable to the families of the 3 people killed.

Settlement

Although television would lead us to believe otherwise, most lawsuits settle, meaning that the two parties agree to a financial payout (and, perhaps, other terms) without going to trial. There is no jury verdict. It may surprise you to know that about 98% of all cases settle.

Benefits of a settlement would include:

  • Faster resolution, which means you get your money faster and get the stress of the case over with.
  • Going with a jury trial is a roll of the dice; you really never know what a jury will decide and how much in damages they will award. On the other hand, a settlement is a "sure" thing.

Your PI attorney will provide guidance to let you know whether a settlement offer is fair - or not.

For example, Aileen was injured when a car struck her while she was riding her bicycle. She and her lawyer prepared for trial, but she decided to accept a generous settlement offer instead.

Statute of Limitations

Personal injury cases have time limits within which the injured person must bring the case. This time limit is called the "statute of limitations" and attempts to ensure evidence is available, especially to the individual or company accused of causing the injury.

  • Over time, evidence fades -  witnesses move away, change jobs, or their memories fade and physical evidence disappears.
  • Each state sets its own statute of limitations and the first thing your personal injury attorney will check is whether the statute of limitations has expired for your cause of action.
  • Do not wait to contact an accident attorney; if the statute of limitation passes, you will never be able to bring your case.

For example, Noelle was seriously injured when the power tool she was using cut her arm. Investigation revealed that there was no safety guard on the tool. As soon as Noelle was out of the hospital, she contacted a personal injury attorney and was relieved to know she had a case and was well within the 2-year statute of limitation for filing her case.

Strict Liability

Although most personal injury cases are based on a theory of negligence, some PI cases are strict liability cases. In negligence cases, you must prove that the defendant was at fault to win your case; in strict liability cases you don't.

In strict liability cases, to win your case, you must prove that:
  • The tort occurred (e.g. the house blew up)
  • The defendant was responsible (e.g. XYZ Company was blasting next door)

Strict liability is attached to inherently dangerous activities such as blasting and keeping dangerous animals. In addition, if you show that the defendant knew of a defect (e.g. inadequate lock on polar bear cage), you would be eligible for punitive damages in addition to the normal compensatory damages.

For example, Kim and Dan run a home for wayward lions, tigers, and bear. They don't believe in keeping their animals contained, so they allow them to roam free. A lion eats Fred.

Kim and Dan will likely be held responsible to Fred's family for his death and will likely have to pay compensatory damages such as medical bills, funeral bills, lost wages, loss of consortium. In addition, the jury is likely to award punitive damages as well, to punish Kim and Dan and prevent them and others from allowing wild animals to run lose in the future.

Tort

A personal injury case is a tort case. The case is a civil (i.e. non-criminal) case wherein the actions or inactions of an individual or company cause harm to another. Most tort cases are based upon the negligence of the defendant, but some are based upon strict liability and no negligence need be shown.

Examples of tort cases are exactly the same as examples of personal injury cases:
  • Motor Vehicle Accidents
  • Dog Bites
  • Nursing Home Abuse
  • Workers Compensation
  • Wrongful Death
  • Mesothelioma
  • Defective Product Cases
  • Drunk Driving Accidents
  • Slip and Falls
  • Food Poisoning
  • Fires
  • Explosions
  • Meningitis Outbreaks
  • Legionnaire's Disease

For example, Lenny and Ben suffered severe cases of food poisoning caused by eating food at a local restaurant. Upon inspection, it was discovered that 10 other patrons also suffered food poisoning after eating at the restaurant the very same evening and the restaurant refrigeration system was faulty.

Tortfeasor

A "tortfeasor" is an individual or company who is accused of hurting someone, the defendant in a personal injury case.

Examples would be the drunk driver in a wrongful death case, the building owner in a slip and fall case, or a company that manufactures a defective product.

  • Your personal injury attorney will help you to identify all potential tortfeasors. Why wouldn't you know who hurt you? You may not know who is legally responsible for your injury.
  • Consider a product liability case in which the manufacturer, distributor, and retailer can all be held legally responsible for an injury caused by a defective product.

For example, ABC Company, produced baby cribs that collapse, if rocked. If a baby is injured, his parents will likely sue the tortfeasor, ABC Company. However, the distributor and retailer may also be legally responsible for putting a defective product into the market place.

Workers Compensation

Most PI lawyers accept workers compensation cases when the employee is having some difficulty with the system. Perhaps, the worker is being forced back to work too soon or isn't receiving payments as appropriate.

Workers compensation kicks in when an employee is injured (or become ill) within "the scope of employment" - which means "on the job". The workers compensation system was set up to avoid the legal system and get workers healthy and back to work - as well as to avoid a break down in the relationship between employee and employer. Often it works; sometimes it doesn't.

For example, Sandra, a pharmaceutical representative, was visiting a client when she fell in a parking lot. She was seriously injured. Workers compensation paid the medical bills and 2/3 of her salary for 10 weeks. Then, the medical doctor, who was chosen and paid for by Sandra's employer, stated that she was well enough to go back to work.

Sandra, still in severe back pain, disagreed, and was fearful. She consulted with a personal injury attorney, who said he would have Sandra examined by another doctor (who was not in the pocket of her employer).

How to Find and Select a Personal Injury Lawyer

Most folks find an attorney through:
  • Personal referrals
  • Bar association lists
  • Internet searches

Personal Referrals

If you happen to know someone who suffered injury and was very happy with her personal injury lawyer - and that lawyer works in your geographic area - you're in luck. Your friend and or loved one can provide insider information on what it's really like to work with that particular attorney and law firm.

Bar Association Lists

Bar associations often have lists of attorneys who practice in a particular field of law. You can call your local bar association for a list or the list may be online.

Internet Searches

Many folks seem to be finding attorneys through Internet searches. If you'd like, you're welcome to use our free, private, and no obligation attorney referral website, www.attorneys.org.

You are welcome to a free case evaluation from any personal injury attorney of the personal injury attorneys listed. Just search under "personal injury attorneys". If you need another type of attorney, search under the closest label such as "divorce attorney" or "social security disability attorney".

How to Select a Personal Injury Attorney

Jot down all of your questions and concerns and, then, contact a few personal injury attorneys. Here what they have to say and get your questions answered:
  • Do you regularly handle cases like mine?
  • How much do you charge?
  • What expenses do you expect and how are they paid?
  • Do you have time in your schedule to give adequate attention to my case?
  • What is your return telephone call policy?
  • How much is my case worth?
  • How long will my case take?
  • Will you handle the insurance companies?

And ask anything else you have on your mind.

I've Been Injured in a Car Accident or Suffered Some Other Kind of Injury, What Do I Do Next?

If you have been injured at the hands at another individual or a company, we believe that you will likely feel better when you know that you have a personal injury attorney on your side, looking out for your best interests, and providing advice for your specific situation.

While neither your personal injury lawyer nor the legal system can turn back the hands of time and prevent your injuries, they can help you to receive the financial compensation you need so you can pay your bills and focus on healing. We hope that you heal quickly and completely. Best wishes.

More articles about personal injury

  • Personal Injury Law

    Understand personal injury claims - legal remedies where injured persons can pursue compensation for injuries suffered.

  • How much is my Personal Injury Case Worth?

    Why only a qualified attorney can help estimate damages from injuries that may have cost you monetarily, mentally and/or physically.

  • Time Limits in a Personal Injury Case

    Though it varies by state, personal injury cases must be brought within a certain time frame or forever be barred. Here’s how to determine whether you still have an injury claim to pursue.

  • Personal Injury Attorney Fees

    Injury lawyers often work on contingency fees, meaning you don’t pay unless they win your case. And most cases can be resolved before they ever go to trial.

  • Why You Cannot Trust Your Insurance Company

    The favorite words of insurance carriers are DENY, DEFEND and DELAY. Here’s why you have to be careful.

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