New to the world of Personal Injury Law? Best to start with the most essential definitions. Your personal injury lawyer will do his or her best to avoid “legalese,” but you will feel more confident if you know the basic vocabulary.
In everyday English, an attorney and a lawyer are the exact same thing. These words are interchangeable in common usage.
There is a technical distinction, however, between a lawyer and an attorney. A lawyer has completed law school and passed the bar exam and may (or may not) be practicing law in court. A lawyer could be practicing law in court, or a lawyer may take on a job as a consultant, advisor, or law professor. Michelle Obama, for example, is a lawyer who spent most of her career working in nonprofits and hospital administration.
Like lawyers, attorneys have also completed law school and passed the bar exam. Attorneys actively practice law in court.
The defendant is the person or entity that needs to defend itself. In other words, the person or entity being sued is the defendant.
“Plaintiff” is related to the word “plaintive,” which means to suffer or complain. The plaintiff, therefore, is the person or entity that has been wronged by the defendant.
“Claimant” is another word sometimes used in place of “plaintiff.” The claimant is the person who claims to be injured.
If you are seeking the help of a personal injury attorney after suffering an injury, then you are the plaintiff. You have suffered; you have been wronged by someone else’s negligence. The person or entity whom you are suing is the defendant. The defendant has acted with carelessness or negligence which has harmed you.
“The plaintiff, E. Jones, claimed that her employer had caused her broken leg by
failing to follow safety regulations at the construction site. The employer was named as the defendant in the case.”
When a lawsuit is brought by a plaintiff against a defendant, then the plaintiff is suing the defendant. A lawsuit and a suit are the same term. A lawsuit is a court action seeking to establish responsibility (or “liability”) for some injury or wrongdoing. A lawsuit becomes official when a certain set of papers are submitted to the court and to the defendant. This is called “filing a lawsuit” or “suing.”
“I don’t know how to file a lawsuit! I’ve never even known anyone that has been
sued. That’s why I talked to an attorney.”
“Compensation” refers to the money that the defendant pays to the plaintiff to resolve the lawsuit. The compensation may be used to cover medical bills, lost work, disability, wrongful death, negative effects experienced by dependents, and pain and suffering. Compensation also includes payment for the plaintiff’s legal team.
“Damages” is a term that is sometimes used interchangeably with “compensation.” “Damages” refer to the payment that a court requires of a defendant who has been found to be responsible for another’s injury.
Damages may be compensatory or punitive. Compensatory damages are awarded to bring justice to a plantiff who has suffered due to someone else’s negligence. Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant and deter future misbehavior.
“My personal injury attorney helped me receive the maximum compensation for
the wrongful death of my husband. The money won’t bring him back, but it will
help me take care of my children and pay off our debts. In addition, I’m receiving punitive damages from the defendant. The court wanted to deter other companies from taking similar safety shortcuts.”
Settle/Going to trial
“Settlement” refers specifically to an agreement between both parties involved in a lawsuit. A settlement happens outside of court. A settlement may occur pretrial or during a trial.
Most personal injury cases do not go to trial. Approximately 95% of personal injuries cases are settled pretrial.
“Most insurers will do everything possible to settle a lawsuit before it gets to court.”
When a defendant settles a case out of court, the defendant may agree to pay money to the plaintiff. The money that a defendant agrees to pay can be referred to as a “settlement.”
“The plaintiff received the settlement as a single lump sum of cash instead of as a
series of payments.”
A note for readers:
Everything from dog bit injury to traumatic brain injury attorneys…
Whether you’re meeting with an auto accident attorney or traumatic brain injury attorney in Las Vegas, we know it can feel intimidating at first as you navigate the legal process and jargon.
Remember that your lawyer is on your side. They want you to feel that you have an advocate, that you understand the legal process, and that you can have confidence in your decisions. If you don’t understand your lawyer’s language, don’t hesitate to ask for help. “I don’t understand yet. Will you please slow down? or “That sounded like legalese. Can you please explain?” Your lawyer went to law school so you don’t have to. You’re on the same team.