If you do not work in the legal field on a daily basis, some of the terms attorneys use may seem foreign. Understanding commonly used legal terms will improve your understanding of the law and your rights under state and federal law. Here are some of the most common legal terms we use in personal injury cases:
1. Plaintiff and defendant
The person filing the legal claim is called the plaintiff. In personal injury cases, the injured individual or individuals seeking damages is the plaintiff. As in criminal law, the individual under scrutiny in civil cases is termed the defendant.
2. Statute of limitations
The timeframe for filing a personal injury lawsuit is known as the statute of limitations. Every state has different timeframes for different kinds of cases. In most personal injury cases, the West Virginia statute of limitations is two years from the date an injury occurred or the date an injury was discovered. Courts will throw out cases that do not meet the relevant statute of limitations. There are some exceptions to the statutes (times when the clock stops ticking). Consult a West Virginia personal injury attorney before assuming that your case does not fall under the statute of limitations.
Negligence is defined as acting without reasonable care. In most personal injury cases, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant acted negligently. Defendants are negligent if they:
- Owe the plaintiff a reasonable duty of care
- Fail to meet that duty of care
- Cause serious injury as a result of that failure
If you ever wonder if you might have a personal injury case, ask yourself if someone acting reasonably would have engaged in the same behavior as the individual who caused your injury. If not and that failure caused your injury, you may have a personal injury claim.
When you win a personal injury suit, damages are the financial compensation you receive from the defendant. The court may award economic, non-economic, and punitive damages. Economic damages are designed to cover your losses from the injury, including medical bills, lost wages and future income, and property damage. Non-economic damages include compensation for pain and suffering and other losses that are not easily quantifiable. Punitive damages are financial awards that go above and beyond compensation to punish defendants in cases of extreme negligence.
5. Contingency fee basis
Before you hire an attorney, you may wonder about fee structures. Most personal injury attorneys operate on a contingency fee basis, meaning they do not ask for retainers or hourly fees during a case. Instead, attorneys collect payment directly from the financial compensation obtained in a lawsuit. This structure makes personal injury representation available to anyone who suffers a preventable injury.
6. Strict liability
In cases involving strict liability, a plaintiff does not need to prove negligence to obtain compensation. He or she only needs to prove that the defendant was responsible. Product liability cases involving manufacturers, dog bite cases, and some farming cases may involve elements of strict liability.
7. Res ipsa loquitur
Medical malpractice cases may involve this Latin phrase, which means “the thing speaks for itself.” In these cases, the type of injury involved can only occur from an act of negligence that was completely within the defendant’s control. For example, a plaintiff can use the res ipsa loquitur doctrine in surgical error cases where a surgeon operates on the wrong body part.
8. Burden of proof
In personal injury cases, the plaintiff must prove through overwhelming evidence that the defendant is responsible for the injury. If an injury might have been caused by another factor, the courts may not award damages.
If you have any other legal terms you would like us to define, let us know. Contact our Charleston office for more information about the legal process in West Virginia or for a free case evaluation.