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Common Legal Terminology 101

Legal terms can be confusing. Sometimes it feels as if lawyers are purposefully using words that no sane person would choose to utilize. This blog will attempt to demystify this language and define some common legal terms.

Why Is It Good To Know What Legal Terms Mean?

While American laws, cases, and other legal texts are available in English, you will find that it is common to find certain words that seem almost foreign to native speakers. There are two main reasons for this phenomenon.

The first explanation has to do with the same reasons that other professions, such as doctors, utilize seemingly foreign words. Certain situations, such as medical malpractice, or certain practices, such as charging a contingency fee, are common in the legal profession, but not in a non-lawyer’s everyday life. Because lawyers generally work with other lawyers when determining the legality and validity of the situations they come across, they have adopted shorthand names to allow them to quickly explain what they have come across to other lawyers.

The second explanation has to do with the age and nature of the legal profession. The legal profession is old. It originated from the common law in England before America was founded, and many of those old England laws originated from even older laws in other countries. As the legal profession prides itself on following precedent, or the reasoning of past judges, some terms never or just barely evolved past their old language roots, many time originating from Latin terms. Terms like plaintiff fit this mold.

Knowing what these terms mean in the legal setting is extremely helpful, as it will help you understand your case more effectively and be more aware of the law and procedure occurring when another lawyer or the judge is speaking. Having an experienced attorney is also important for this purpose. The attorney may not speak Latin, but they will know what all these legal terms mean, and can explain them to you with the process of your case.

Common Legal Terms and What They Mean?


The person, company, or organization that initiates a lawsuit against someone else.


The person, company, or organization that the lawsuit is brought against.

Contingency fee

This fee is paid to an attorney when an attorney is successful in making a recovery on behalf of their client. The lawyer receives a percentage of the verdict or settlement amount.


Investigation before a lawsuit goes to trial. The parties gather facts and information about the other party to build their case. This commonly takes place through the use of written (interrogatories) or oral questioning (depositions).


A request by one party for a judge’s ruling on an issue the parties cannot come to an agreement on that is made orally or in writing at any point during a lawsuit.

Medical Malpractice

Care given by a healthcare provider that is negligent and does not meet the standards of care, which results in the patient’s injury or death.

Wrongful death

A death caused by the negligence of another person.


The failure to act with the degree of care that the law requires to protect other people and their interests, which often results in injuring others


The amount of money a client can recover in a lawsuit. Damages are awarded to someone who has suffered an injury or loss as a result of an action by another party. There are many forms of damages, including economic, physical, and emotional.

Compensatory damages are recovered for injury or economic loss, whereas punitive damages are awarded to punish a defendant for his or her actions, such as negligence.

A well-known example of punitive damages involved a woman who spilled hot coffee on her lap.  The jury, wanting to send a message to McDonald’s, awarded the plaintiff nearly $3 million dollars in punitive damages, although the amount was later lowered by a judge.


An action is a lawsuit in which a party or parties sue one another. A cause of action is the basis of a lawsuit, such as fraud, breach of contract, or negligence. A cause of action is divided into elements, and each element must be proved to win the case.


Liability is the legal responsibility for one’s actions. Failure of a person or entity to meet their responsibilities under the law leaves that party vulnerable to lawsuits for any resulting damages. Strict liability means a party can still be found guilty of an offense, even without any intent to harm.

Demurrer (pronounced dee-muhr-ur) (aka motion to dismiss)

A formal response to a complaint filed in a lawsuit, pleading for dismissal and saying, in effect, that even if the facts are true, there is no legal basis for a lawsuit. Examples include a missing necessary element of fact, or a complaint that is unclear. The judge can agree and “leave to amend,” giving the claimant the opportunity to amend the complaint. If it is not amended to the judge’s satisfaction, the demurrer is granted.


Doing something illegal or morally wrong. Malfeasance includes dishonesty and abuse of authority.


From the French word for “wrong,” a tort is a wrongful or illegal act, whether intentional or accidental, in which an injury occurs to another. An intentional tort may also be a crime, such as battery, fraud or theft. Tort law is one of the largest areas of civil law.

Personal Injury

Personal injuries include injuries done to another person’s body, emotions, or reputation. They do not include damages done to property.

The Importance of Words

The way your case is explained is very important, as experienced attorneys will know. So these terms are ones you may hear during a trial or in the documentation of your case and it can be helpful to know what they mean so you can understand what’s being said.

Bulluck Law Group has years of experience in Tampa and St. Petersburg, Florida representing clients for their personal injuries. These areas include car accidents, bus accidents, slip and falls, wrongful deaths, negligent security, and premise liability.

Contact us for a free consultation today, wherein we can determine these issues for you.

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