GJEL Legal Dictionary

Below you will find the GJEL Personal Injury Legal Dictionary sorted in alphabetical order. These are common terms you might see used in a personal injury case.

3rd Party Insurance:

An agreement to cover a loss resulting from the insured’s liability to a third party, such as a loss incurred by a driver who injures a pedestrian.  The insured’s claim under the policy arises once the insured’s liability to a third party has been asserted.

In Plain English:

A 3rd party insurance claim is one that is pursued against the insurance company of a person or business which has harmed you. Examples would be: a personal injury claim for damages you make against the insurance company of a car that hit you in the crosswalk or a personal injury claim against a drug company that manufactured a medicine which caused you physical problems.


The assertion, claim, declaration, or statement of a party to an action, made in a pleading, setting out what he expects to prove.

In Plain English:

When the plaintiff and defendant file the complaint and answer, each of them tries to tell the facts of the case. The plaintiff will also explain why he is suing the defendant, and the defendant will explain his defense. These statements, until they are proven to be true or untrue in court, are called allegations.


A defendant’s first pleading that addresses the merits of the case, usually by denying the plaintiff’s allegations.
An answer usually sets forth the defendant’s defenses.

In Plain English:

An answer is the defendant’s response to the complaint. In the answer, the defendant will admit to or deny those facts and allegations that the plaintiff included in the complaint. The answer will also usually contain any defense that the defendant is claiming he has against the allegations in the complaint.


A method of dispute resolution involving one or more neutral third parties who are usually agreed to by the disputing parties and whose decision is binding.

In Plain English:

Often a case will be resolved without going to trial. Sometimes both the plaintiff and defendant might agree to resolve the case through arbitration. In that case, the two parties will work together to select a neutral person to be the arbitrator, who will act as a sort of “judge.” Both sides will present their side of the case to the arbitrator, and the arbitrator will make a decision which is binding.

Learn more about the difference between mediation and arbitration in a personal injury case here. 


The complaint is the initial pleading that starts a civil action and states the basis for the court’s jurisdiction, the basis for the plaintiff’s claim, and the demand for relief.

In Plain English:

A complaint is a document that the plaintiff’s attorney writes. It is the first document filed in a lawsuit, and it is the filing of this document that is meant when someone says he will “file a lawsuit.” It includes facts and allegations about what happened, and why the plaintiff is suing the defendant.

Contingency Fee:

A fee charged for a lawyer’s services only if the lawsuit is successful or is favorably settled out of court. Contingent fees are usually calculated as a percentage of the client’s net recovery.

In Plain English:

In most personal injury cases, the plaintiff’s attorneys are paid on a contingency fee basis. This means that the attorneys only receive a fee if the plaintiff receives a settlement or is awarded damages at trial. If no settlement is reached, or no damages awarded at trial, the plaintiff does not have to pay the attorneys a fee. Typically the fee is a percentage of the total amount received by the plaintiff either in the form of a settlement or as damages awarded at trial.


Money claimed by, or ordered to be paid to, a person as compensation for loss or injury.

In Plain English:

Damages is the term for the money that is paid to the plaintiff if the defendant is found to be liable for an injury to the plaintiff or damage to the plaintiff’s property.


A person sued in a civil proceeding or accused in a criminal proceeding.

In Plain English:

The defendant is the person that the plaintiff is suing. For most personal injury cases, the defendant is the person who acted negligently and caused the injuries of the plaintiff.


A witness’s out-of-court testimony that is reduced to writing (usually by a court reporter) for later use in court or for discovery purposes.

In Plain English:

A deposition is when the attorney asks questions of a party from the opposite side of the lawsuit, or of a witness. The attorney for the person answering questions is also there to help by objecting and instructing the person answering whether or not they have to answer certain questions. A court reporter will be present to create a transcript of the deposition. The testimony given at deposition can be used later during the trial, if there is one.


The pre-trial devices that can be used by one party to obtain facts and information about the case from the other party in order to assist the party’s preparation for trial. Tools of discovery include depositions upon oral and written questions, written interrogatories, production of documents or things, permission to enter upon land or other property, physical and mental examinations and requests for admission.

In Plain English:

Discovery is the process by which both the plaintiff and the defendant learn more about facts of the case, and the opposing side’s case. It takes place prior to the trial so that both sides have the information they need to argue their cases. Discovery includes many tools, including interrogatories, depositions, accident reconstruction, examinations by doctors of injured parties, and examining documents and items relating to the case.

Expert Witness:

An expert who is identified by a party as a potential witness. An expert is a person who, through education or experience, has developed skill or knowledge in a particular subject, so that he or she may form an opinion that will assist the fact-finder.

In Plain English:

In a personal injury case, the expert witnesses are usually doctors. They can testify about the plaintiff’s injuries because they have the education (medical school) and the experience (as a practicing doctor) to develop an expert opinion about the nature and extent of the injuries. The expert will be asked questions at a deposition, and if the case goes to trial, he or she will also testify there. The testimony that the expert witness gives can help the judge and jury decide the verdict of the case.


A set or series of written questions drawn up for the purpose of being propounded to a party, witness, or other person having information of interest in the case. They are a pretrial discovery device consisting of written questions about the case submitted by one party to the other party or witness. The answers to the interrogatories are usually given under oath.

In Plain English:

Interrogatories are a tool used during the discovery process. They are questions that attorneys write that are given to the other side and their witnesses to answer. This helps the attorneys learn information that is necessary to understand what happened in the case.


Liability is the quality or state of being legally obligated or accountable; legal responsibility to another or to society, enforceable by civil remedy.

In Plain English:

When a person is liable, it means that he or she is legally and financially responsible for an action, and any resulting damages. If, for example, someone is negligent and causes damage because of his or her negligent behavior, that person then is liable for the cost of those damages.

In the case of a lawsuit, the defendant’s liability is determined by the judge, or judge and jury (if it is a jury trial).


A method of nonbinding dispute resolution involving a neutral third party who tries to help the disputing parties reach a mutually agreeable solution.

In Plain English:

Sometimes a case will be settled without going to trial or arbitration. Often, it is difficult for the attorneys for the plaintiff and defendant to reach a settlement agreement on their own. In those cases, they may hire a mediator to help resolve the case. The mediator is neutral, and during the mediation, works with both parties to find a solution and settlement amount that is acceptable to both sides.


Negligence is the failure to exercise the standard of care that a reasonably prudent person would have exercised in a similar situation; any conduct that falls below the legal standard established to protect others against unreasonable risk of harm, except for conduct that is intentionally, wantonly, or willfully disregardful of others’ rights.
The term denotes culpable carelessness.
A tort grounded in this failure, usually expressed in terms of the following elements: duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages.

In Plain English:

If a person is negligent, it basically means that he or she wasn’t as careful as most reasonable people would be in any given situation. For example, if a driver does not check his mirrors or blind spot before making a lane change, that driver was engaging in negligent behavior because most would agree that a reasonable person would check for other cars before making a lane change.

This behavior becomes the tort of negligence when the negligent behavior causes damages to someone else or someone else’s property.


The party who brings a civil suit in a court of law.

In Plain English:

The plaintiff is the person who is suing the defendant. In most cases that personal injury firms take, this person will be someone who was injured, and who is suing the person who is responsible for injuring them.


The exhibition or delivery of a writ, summons and complaint, criminal summons, notice, order, etc., by an authorized person, to a person who is thereby officially notified of some action or proceeding in which he is concerned and is thereby advised or warned of some action or step which he is commanded to take or to forbear.

In Plain English:

Service is the term used for giving notice to someone. For example, when the plaintiff files a complaint in a lawsuit, the plaintiff must also serve the defendant the complaint. The plaintiff can serve the defendant personally, by having a registered person give the papers to the defendant, or by mail. The main goal is to take reasonable steps to be sure that the defendant knows he is being sued. It is an important step, because the Constitution requires that someone who is involved in a lawsuit be put on notice of the lawsuit so that he or she has a chance to defend himself or herself.

Statute of Limitations:

A law that bars claims after a specified period; specifically a statue establishing a time limit for suing in a civil case, based on the date when the claim accrued (as when the injury occurred or was discovered). The purpose is to require diligent prosecution of known claims, thereby providing finality and predictability in legal affairs and ensuring that claims will be resolved while evidence is reasonably available and fresh.

In Plain English:

The statute of limitations is a law that puts a time limit on how long a plaintiff has to file a lawsuit. Depending on the type of lawsuit, the time may vary, but is usually between one and three years. The time is often measured starting at the date of the event that gives rise to the claim. For example, in a motor vehicle accident case, the time typically starts running on the date of the accident.


A civil wrong, other than breach of contract, for which a remedy may be obtained, usually in the form of damages; a breach of a duty that the law imposes on persons who stand in a particular relation to one another.

In Plain English:

A tort has happened when one person has harmed another person but is not a crime. The person who was injured then has the ability to seek compensation for the injuries they suffered by filing a law suit against the person who caused the damages and injuries.

Underinsured Motorist Insurance:

Insurance that pays for losses caused by a driver who negligently damages the insured but does not have enough liability insurance to cover the damages.

In Plain English:

If you have underinsured motorist coverage, it means that if you are injured in an accident because of a negligent driver who does not have enough insurance to cover the damages he caused, your insurance may pay the difference.

Uninsured Motorist Coverage:

Insurance that pays for the insured’s injuries and losses negligently caused by a driver who has no liability insurance.

In Plain English:

If you have uninsured motorist coverage, it means that you have insurance that may pay for your injuries or damages if you are in an accident with a negligent driver who does not have insurance.


A judge or jury’s finding or decision on the factual issues of a case.

In Plain English:

If a case goes to trial, the judge or jury will give a verdict at the end of the case. The verdict will include a statement about whether or not the defendant was liable and if so, the amount of the damages that the defendant will have to pay to the plaintiff.

Wrongful Death Action:

A lawsuit brought on behalf of a decedent’s survivors for their damages resulting from a tortious injury that caused the decedent’s death.

In Plain English:

If someone is killed because of the negligence of someone else, the heirs of the deceased can sue for damages.

We hope you found this resource useful. If there are more terms you would like to see please let us know by emailing us at webmaster (at) gjel.com.

Andy Gillin

Andy Gillin received his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of California at Berkeley and his law degree from the University of Chicago. He is the managing partner of GJEL Accident Attorneys and has written and lectured in the field of plaintiffs’ personal injury law for numerous organizations. Andy is a highly recognized wrongful death lawyer in California.