Personal Injury Terms

The attorneys at Wapner Newman understand that the law is full of complex legal terminology that can seem overwhelming at times. Although everyone’s situation is different, there are some words and concepts that commonly arise. While we encourage you to consult an attorney about specific matters,  we offer the following definitions as an easy, brief reference for potential clients who may have basic questions about common personal injury terms.

Answer: A written pleading filed by the defendant in response to the plaintiff’s complaint. It contains the defendant’s version of events, admitting or denying each allegation.

Complaint: A written pleading that, when properly filed and served, formally begins a lawsuit. It identifies the parties, lists the plaintiff’s reasons for bringing the case, and declares the type of relief sought.

Damages: This is why the plaintiff filed a lawsuit. Damages in a personal injury action are a measurement in financial terms of the harm suffered by the plaintiff because of the defendant’s actions. Economic damages are quantifiable damages such as repair bills, current and future medical expenses, wages lost while out of work due to the incident, and wages lost due to a decrease in future earning capacity because of the injuries. Non-economic damages cannot be specifically quantified and include things such as pain, suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and emotional distress.

Modified Comparative Fault: Each state has different rules for how much a plaintiff can recover in damages if he or she was partly at fault for the incident that is the subject of the lawsuit. Percentages of fault are assigned by the court among all the parties and the damage award is apportioned accordingly. Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey follow a modified comparative negligence system with a 51 percent bar rule, which means that a plaintiff can be awarded damages as long as he or she was 50 percent or less at fault. The recovery is reduced by the degree of fault.

Motion: A written or oral request for the court to rule on a legal issue. Examples include motions for summary judgment, motions to dismiss, motions to compel, motions to strike, and motions to vacate a default judgment.

Negligence: Duty, breach, causation and damages are the foundation of nearly every personal injury suit. Fundamentally, negligence is a failure to act with reasonable care. To be successful, a plaintiff has to show:

  • that the defendant had a duty or obligation to the plaintiff,
  • that the defendant violated or breached that duty,
  • that the violation or breach caused damage to the plaintiff, and
  • that there are actual damages for which the plaintiff can be compensated.

Plaintiff/Defendant: The parties to a lawsuit. The plaintiff is the party that is claiming harm while the defendant is the party that is allegedly responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries. For example, if you are injured after being struck by a car and you sue the driver, you are the plaintiff and the driver is the defendant.

Statute of Limitations: To encourage timely litigation, the law imposes time limits as to when a lawsuit can be filed. If the plaintiff does not bring an action within the appropriate time, he or she is permanently barred from doing so. Although a plaintiff can still try to file after the deadline has passed, the defendant will respond with a motion to dismiss, which the court will most likely grant. Limitations periods vary from case to case, and it can be quite difficult to determine the correct time period, which often hinges on when the injury was or should have been discovered. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, lawsuits resulting from motor vehicle accidents generally must be filed within two years. The filing deadlines for other types of personal injury claims may be shorter or longer.

Torts: Not to be confused with a delicious cake (“torte”), a “tort” is a wrongful act that causes injury. This encompasses nearly every cause of action in a civil suit, including negligence, medical malpractice, vehicle accidents, and wrongful death. Acts done on purpose are called “intentional torts,” and many of them are also crimes. Tort law is one of the major areas of law, along with contract law, family law, real property law, and criminal law.

Wrongful Death: When an individual’s death is the fault of another person or entity, his or her survivors can sue to be compensated for their loss. In Pennsylvania, only the victim’s spouse, adult child, or parent can file this type of lawsuit, unless someone else was named as the personal representative before the victim’s death. In New Jersey, the executor of the will is authorized to file the wrongful death lawsuit on the behalf of the beneficiaries.