Glossary of Commonly Used Personal Injury Terms

Home/Glossary of Commonly Used Personal Injury Terms

A legal dictionary from the Southern California personal injury lawyers at Duque Law.

One of the most common requests we get during our free legal consultations at our offices in Newport Beach, Riverside, and Temecula, is to define what we mean by a word or phrase. While you can definitely leave the more technical points of legal jargon to our attorneys, there are some terms that you should become familiar with.

The following definitions are explanations for some of the more common phrases and words in personal injury cases. To learn more about these terms and others, please call our law offices toll-free at 1-877-241-9554.

Abstract of Title

A chronological summary of all official records and recorded documents affecting the title to a portion of real property.

Ad Litem

A Latin term meaning for the purposes of the lawsuit. A guardian “ad litem” may be appointed by a court to stand in on another’s behalf—someone who is incapable of representing him or herself, such as child or legally incompetent adult.


To resolve a legal case.


The process for requesting a higher court to review and formally make a change to an official legal decision. The appellate court is the higher court who reviews the lower court’s decision, often a state supreme court.


A fibrous mineral used as insulation in buildings before it was banned in the 1980s. Individuals exposed to asbestos have been known to develop lung cancer, including mesothelioma, and other severe respiratory illnesses.

Assumption of Risk

When a person voluntarily proceeds with a risk despite obvious and known danger. In this situation, the individual assumed the risk and thus will not be permitted to seek monetary damages from those they believe to be responsible.

Civil Rights

A name given to a group of rights possessed by all citizens granted and protected by the U.S. Constitution. In civil law, civil rights may refer to laws governing equality of race and gender that are violated by discrimination or may refer to more general rights of citizens that are violated by police brutality, wrongful arrest, hate crimes or interference with access to health care, just to name a few examples.

Civil law allows individuals whose civil rights have been violated to file a lawsuit against private companies as well as government agencies in order to recover damages as well as to potentially modify practices that infringe on civil rights.

Civil Law

A branch of law governing disputes between individuals and/or corporations, in which compensation may be awarded to one or more parties. For the purpose of civil law, corporations take on the legal status of individuals.

Civil law is distinct from criminal law, and a civil action may not necessarily preclude a criminal action.

Claim (personal injury)

A civil action relating to the physical or mental harm suffered by the plaintiff, or on behalf of the injured victim, due to negligence on the defendant’s part.

Class-Action Lawsuit

A lawsuit filed by a plaintiff or plaintiffs on behalf of themselves and all individuals similarly identifiable as part of a group with the plaintiffs.

Class-action lawsuits are most frequently filed to make a company responsible for liability of its products, such as defective drugs or faulty products that cause injury or sickness.


Money awarded to a plaintiff in a civil court case for actual economic losses.

In some states, compensatory damages may cover only actual economic losses, like medical bills and lost income. In others, compensatory damages may include compensation for things like pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life.


The amount of money awarded to the plaintiff in a civil court case. Money may be awarded for compensatory damages and punitive damages.


In a civil court of law, the party against whom the civil lawsuit has been filed.


Unequal and unfair treatment of individuals based on race, sex, age, marital status, religion or any other factor in consideration for employment, housing, arrest and other. Civil rights laws may allow legal recourse for violations of these rights by discrimination in many cases.

Due Diligence

In tort law, the effort made by a prudent or reasonable party to avoid or prevent harm to another party. If the party is determined in court not to have acted with due diligence, that party may be considered negligent.


In cases of negligence, a “duty” refers to an obligation to provide a certain standard of care (see below). Failure to meet this obligation is negligence, and cause for legal action on the part of the injured individual.

Excessive force

A phrase often used with the legal and criminal term police brutality to describe the use of physical force, assault, as well as threats and other verbal force used by police and other law enforcement officers in subduing an alleged criminal.

Excited Delirium

A term used to describe a state of physiological agitation leading to death that most often occurs during arrest or in police custody, typically also involving use of illegal substances. It may be listed on an autopsy of a death involving Taser use.

Taser International advocates the use of the term as the cause of any death involving use of Tasers, though the medical evidence supporting their claims is company-funded and therefore questionable.

Hate Crime

A crime committed against another individual specifically to cause harm due to prejudice over race, sex, age, sexual orientation, religion or another factor.

Civil rights laws may allow legal recourse for hate crimes in which another party contributed to acts or omissions involved in the hate crime.


A blatant false or deceptive statement of fact intended to persuade another person to give up something valuable or a legal right he/she is entitled to.

Gross Negligence

Intentional failure to perform a standard of duty by recklessly disregarding another person’s health or property; also known as willful negligence.

Hazardous Exposure

Physical contact with toxic agents or proximity to airborne agents, such as hazardous chemicals, natural gas, mold, lead, asbestos, hazardous waste materials or other agents potentially harmful to health.

Liability for hazardous exposure may be possessed by numerous parties, including but not limited to the manufacturer of a product that causes or contributes to hazardous exposure, such as a product containing lead-based paint; the company responsible for manufacture or installation, as may be the case with a home product such as asbestos, or the owner or manager of a building that contains hazardous agents, such as a landlord or employer.

Hit and Run

A type of automobile accident in which the person responsible for a collision with a person, personal property or another vehicle leaves the scene of the accident without declaring himself.

Injuring another’s personal property or person in an automobile accident may make you liable to repay damages based on your state’s laws. Criminal laws are often harsher with hit-and-run offenders than with others liable for automobile accidents.

Insurance Adjuster

An employee of the insurance company-sometimes a third-party contractor-whose job it is to settle insurance claims. Insurance adjusters are hired to protect the financial interests of the insurance company, which means that they are seeking to settle the insurance claim for as little money as possible.

Many large insurance companies such as Allstate and State Farm have faced lawsuits over fraudulent or illegal practices by their insurance adjusters.


Legal responsibility for an act or omission resulting in injuries and damages to person and/or property, regardless of fault.

Employers may be subject to vicarious liability, in which they are liable for the actions or omissions of a third party over whom they have the right, duty or ability to control. Manufacturers may be subject to product liability for products they manufacture, distribute or sell.


The process of taking legal action and/or filing a lawsuit.

Medical Malpractice

Professional negligence by a health care provider who departs from accepted standards of medical practice and by an act or omission causes injury to the patient.

Medical Malpractice Caps

A common phrase heard in tort reform discussions concerning medical malpractice lawsuits. Advocates of tort reform support placing limits or “caps” on medical malpractice with the intention of keeping insurance premiums low.

However, there is contradictory evidence to claims that large medical malpractice verdicts cause high insurance premiums, including the fact that large punitive damages in medical malpractice are much less common than people think.

Mitigating Circumstances

Conditions that do not constitute a justification or total pardon for an offense, but which may be used as a reason for reducing the degree of fault.


The law requires us to act with “reasonable care”. The specifics of what constitutes reasonable care vary somewhat from state to state and from situation to situation.

In order to recover for most personal injuries, you and your personal injury lawyer will have to prove that another party was negligent, and that their negligence caused your personal injuries.

Occupational Disease

An illness caused by long-term employment in a particular line of work, such as construction workers exposed to asbestos, who later develop cancer.

Pain and Suffering

A legal term for damages recoverable by the plaintiff for emotional trauma as well as mental and physical pain as a result of the acts or omissions of the defendant.

Partial Disability

In a workers’ compensation case, this refers to disabilities that are less than total. Benefits are generally measured by the injured employee’s earning capacity in these situations.

Personal Injury

The area of law which covers all physical, financial, and emotional injuries caused by another person or party’s negligence in using reasonable care. Personal injury cases are considered civil torts, as opposed to criminal lawsuits. Auto accidents and premises liability (slip/fall) are two of the most common types of personal injury cases.

Personal Injury Protection (PIP)

A supplement to auto insurance mandated in some states that requires automobile insurers to provide first-party benefits for medical expenses, loss of income, funeral expenses and survivor benefits without regard to fault in the event of an accident.


In a civil court of law, the party with the complaint or claim who has filed the civil lawsuit. May be an individual or a class of plaintiffs, as in a class-action lawsuit.

Police Brutality

A legal and criminal term used to describe excessive force used by police and other law enforcement officers, potentially including both physical and verbal force, in violation of civil rights laws protecting individuals placed under arrest.

Premises Liability

The legal responsibility of a property owner or occupier of a property to provide compensation for persons who sustain certain injuries while on their premises. For example, a person who is hurt from a slip and fall accident caused by a spill may be able to sue the property owner for negligence.

Preponderance of Evidence

The amount of evidence a plaintiff needs to win a civil case. A preponderance of evidence means that the proof you present must weigh heavier or be more convincing in comparison to the evidence offered by the other side. To win by a preponderance of evidence, the proof presented must simply tip the scales in the plaintiff’s favor, compared to the burden of proof standard set in criminal cases, which must be “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Product Liability

Legal responsibility by a company for defects in its products, as well as any wholesalers or retailers who may have contributed to or caused a defect. In many defective products cases, many defendants are named.

Proximate Cause

The primary or moving reason why an injury or damage occurred and without which the accident would not have happened, if the injury in question can be foreseen as a natural occurrence of the misdeed.

Punitive damages

Damages awarded by a jury to punish a defendant whose behavior in causing the plaintiff’s injuries was especially egregious. Punitive damages are intended to deter further similar behavior, and are typically only assessed in the case of exceptionally serious misconduct, not just negligence.


An agreement between both parties in a lawsuit.

Slip and Fall Injury

A personal injury resulting from an incident in which a person slips or trips and falls. Slip and fall injuries are brought to court under the claim that the property owner was negligent in permitting the conditions (wet or icy surface, obstructing object, poor area visibility, etc.) that caused the slip and fall to occur.

If a jury decides that the property owner acted with due diligence, the plaintiff may not be awarded damages, or the jury may decide that the two parties share blame, often divided into a percentage of the fault that contributes to the calculation of damages.

Specific Loss

In a workers’ comp case, this is the compensation for amputation or permanent paralysis of members of a worker’s body, loss of hearing in one or both ears, loss of vision in one or both eyes, total or partial disability, and disfigurement.

Standard of Care

For cases of negligence, the degree of care which a reasonable person would have applied under the same or similar circumstances. In medical malpractice lawsuits, doctors or health care professionals who fail to meet the standard established by law to protect patients from negligence, the person may be liable for damages or injuries resulting from their conduct.

Statute of Limitations

The period within which a plaintiff must file a lawsuit seeking damages under state law. If the plaintiff waits until after the statute of limitations passes, he or she loses the right to file the lawsuit.

Strict Liability

A legal doctrine that holds a defendant liable for harm cause by their actions regardless of their intentions or level of care. Typically, strict liability is used in defective products or products liability cases.


A civil wrong or breach of a duty to another person, as outlined by law. Personal injuries as a result of negligence are one common example of a tort on which a lawsuit or legal proceeding may be based.

Tort Reform

Legislation intended to reduce liability costs by placing limits or “caps” on punitive damages that may be won for personal injuries and also by modifying liability rules.

Total Disability

In a workers’ compensation case, damages awarded to an employee when they are totally impaired due to a work-related injury. Benefits at the total disability rate are typically two-thirds of wages up to a maximum weekly compensation rate.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

Damage caused to the human brain as a result of sudden trauma to the head, typically either a sudden or violent blow to the head or a piercing of the skull. Symptoms from TBI may appear to be severe, but many victims of TBI may not exhibit obvious symptoms, or may only experience symptoms days or even weeks after the injury is sustained.

As a result, many insurance companies may try to settle personal injuries involving head injuries quickly in order to avoid liability for longer-term problems.

Vaccine Court

Another name for the Office of Special Masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims which litigates vaccine injury claims. Several high-profile cases have gone to trial in recent years in the vaccine court involving a potential link between autism and the mercury-based preservative in vaccines called thiomersal or thimerosal, despite no medical consensus establishing such a link.


A judge or jury’s decision on a case.

Workers’ Compensation (Workers’ Comp)

A legal provision for employees that allows them insurance money for medical care and compensation for injuries sustained while on the job. In exchange for compensation, the employee is legally prevented from suing the employer for negligence.

Wrongful Death Action

A lawsuit filed against an individual or company for the death of a person due to negligent or wrongful behavior. Wrongful death cases are generally filed by a surviving family member (typically spouse), who can recover damages for mental and physical suffering, lost wages, funeral and medical expenses for the deceased, loss of income and earning capacity, loss of consortium, and more.

We hope this glossary can provide you with a better understanding to some of the common terms you’ll encounter when working with the attorneys at Duque Law. If you’d like to discuss your individual case, we urge you to contact our offices toll-free at 1-877-241-9554.

Practice Areas


Brain Injuries

Brain Injuries


Burn Injury

Burn Injury


Bus Accidents

Bus Accidents


Car Accidents

Car Accidents


Construction Accidents

Construction Accidents


Dog Bites

Dog Bites


Motorcycle Accidents

Motorcycle Accidents


Premises Liability

Premises Liability


Wrongful Death

Wrongful Death


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