Legal Definitions

Since we know that legalese can often seem complicated and confusing, we’ve compiled a list of important legal definitions to common terms found in personal injury cases. Please feel free to browse the definitions below and give us a call if you have any questions about your case.

Damages: Monetary compensation (money) that is paid to a person for a loss or injury. The rules for damages can and frequently do vary based on the type of claim presented (e.g., breach of contract versus a tort claim).

Legal cause: Also known as “proximate cause,” an event sufficiently related to a legally recognizable injury to be held a cause of the injury. There are two types of causation in the law: cause-in-fact and proximate (or legal) cause. Cause-in-fact is determined by the “but for” test: but for the action, the result would not have happened. For example, but for running the red light, the collision would not have occurred. For an act to cause a harm, both tests must be met; proximate cause is a legal limitation on cause-in-fact.

Negligence: The area of civil injury law known as negligence is the failure to act with reasonable care. “Reasonable care” is care that a reasonable person would exercise in a similar circumstance. Negligence involves harm caused by the failure to use reasonable care, or carelessness, not intentional harm.

Pre-existing condition: A medical condition that occurred before an injury or accident. A condition for which a person already received medical advice or treatment prior to a new injury or medical condition. A pre-existing condition is anything for which symptoms were present and a prudent person would have sought treatment.

Preponderance of evidence: The greater weight of the evidence required in a civil (non-criminal) lawsuit for the trier of fact (jury or judge without a jury) to decide in favor of one side or the other. This preponderance is based on the more convincing evidence and its probable truth or accuracy, and not on the amount of evidence. Preponderance of the evidence is required in a civil case and is contrasted with “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the more severe test of evidence required to convict in a criminal trial.

Tort: A civil wrong. Tort law deals with situations where a person’s behavior caused someone else to suffer loss or harm. A tort is not necessarily an illegal act but causes harm; therefore, the law allows anyone who is harmed to recover their loss. Tort law is different than criminal law, which deals with situations where a person’s actions cause harm to society in general. A claim in tort may be brought by anyone who has suffered loss. Criminal cases tend to be brought by the state, although private prosecutions are possible. Tort law is also differentiated from equity, in which a petitioner complains of a violation of some right. One who commits a tortious act is called a tortfeasor. Tort may be defined as a personal injury; or as “a civil action other than a breach of contract.” A person who suffers a tortious injury is entitled to receive “damages,” usually monetary compensation, from the person or people responsible — or liable — for those injuries. Tort law defines what is a legal injury and, therefore, whether a person may be held liable for an injury they have caused. Legal injuries are not limited to physical injuries. They may also include emotional, economic, or reputational injuries as well as violations of privacy, property, or constitutional rights. Tort cases therefore comprise such varied topics as auto accidents, false imprisonment, defamation, product liability (for defective consumer products), copyright infringement, and environmental pollution (toxic torts), among many others.