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Glossary of Legal Terms

ANSWER

ANSWER:

The legal document filed with the court by the defendant(s), usually denying the allegations contained in the complaint. Once all of the defendants have filed answers to the complaint, the lawsuit is said to be “at issue.”

APPEAL

APPEAL:

A request, usually to a supervisory court such as the Court of Appeal, to review a decision by the trial court. Normally, an appellate court reviews only whether the trial court followed the correct law and procedures, and no evidence is presented. In some circumstances, one or both parties may ask the Supreme Court to review a decision by the Court of Appeal.

ARBITRATION

ARBITRATION

A method for resolving disputes outside the court system. Arbitration may be voluntary, court-ordered, or contractually binding.

Voluntary arbitration is a process by which both sides agree or stipulate to have an arbitrator (rather than a judge or jury) decide the case after the parties put on evidence.

Court-ordered arbitration is usually not binding and is designed to help the parties evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their cases with an eye toward encouraging settlement. If an arbitration is not binding, either party may request a trial (trial de novo) after the arbitrator has rendered his/her decision.

Binding arbitration is usually agreed to as a condition of a contract. For example, people who are members of Kaiser agree (whether they are aware of it or not) to waive their right to trial by jury and to have most disputes, including claims of medical negligence, decided by one or more arbitrators.

BURDEN OF PROOF

BURDEN OF PROOF:

Plaintiff has the burden of proving the facts necessary to prevail on his/her cause(s) of action. In a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove that it is more likely than not that the defendant is legally responsible for and caused the claimed injuries and the damages that flow from those injuries. In legal parlance, the plaintiff has the burden of proving his/her case “by a preponderance of the evidence.”

The plaintiff’s burden in a civil lawsuit is not the same as the state’s burden in a criminal case, in which the prosecutor must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant is guilty of the conduct charged.

CAUSE OF ACTION

CAUSE OF ACTION:

A legal theory under which the plaintiff in a civil lawsuit seeks to recover monetary damages and/or equitable relief from one or more defendants. “Negligence” is a cause of action.

CLOSING ARGUMENT

CLOSING ARGUMENT:

At the conclusion of trial, after all the evidence has been presented to the judge and/or jury, the attorney for each party is permitted to make a closing statement summarizing the case and arguing his/her position is the right one in an effort to persuade the trier of fact.

COMPLAINT

COMPLAINT:

The legal document filed with the court by one or more plaintiffs which sets forth the causes of action alleged against the defendant and the remedy (damages or equitable relief) requested.

CROSS-EXAMINATION

CROSS-EXAMINATION:

Questioning by an attorney of a witness who is perceived to be hostile to the position of the client represented by the attorney doing the questioning. When conducting cross-examination, an attorney generally may ask leading questions of the witness.

DAMAGES

DAMAGES:

One type of relief, generally monetary, which a plaintiff claims as a result of the civil wrong he alleges against the defendant. Monetary damages include economic damages and non-economic damages.

DEFENDANT

DEFENDANT:

The person(s) alleged by the plaintiff to be legally liable for a civil wrong in a complaint.

DEMURRER

DEMURRER:

A legal challenge, usually made by the defendant, to the sufficiency of the allegations made in the plaintiff’s complaint. If the allegations made in the complaint, if proven true, would not entitle the plaintiff to the remedy he or she is seeking, the court will sustain the demurrer. Plaintiff will usually, but not always, be given an opportunity to plead additional facts in order to get past the demurrer. If he is unable to do so or the court sustains the demurrer without allowing the plaintiff to amend, the lawsuit is effectively over absent an appeal.

DIRECT EXAMINATION

DIRECT EXAMINATION:

Questioning by an attorney of a witness who is perceived as being friendly to the position advanced by that attorney on behalf of his client. For example, when the plaintiff’s attorney is questioning his own client (or a witness called by the attorney on behalf of his client), the attorney will be doing direct examination. When an attorney is doing direct examination, he or she generally is not entitled to ask leading questions.

DISCOVERY

DISCOVERY:

In civil cases, the parties generally exchange a significant amount of information after the complaint and answer are filed with the court. This process involves the exchange of documents, written questions and answers (interrogatories) and the taking of depositions. A deposition is an opportunity for a party to question the defendant or other witnesses under penalty of perjury. The information obtained during “discovery” helps the parties evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the case before trial and is particularly useful in encouraging settlement of lawsuits.

ECONOMIC DAMAGES

ECONOMIC DAMAGES:

Economic damages are those to which a dollar figure can be attached, such as loss of earnings and the cost of medical treatment.

EQUITABLE RELIEF

EQUITABLE RELIEF:

Relief that a court can order when monetary damages are insufficient to make the plaintiff whole. An example of equitable relief is “specific performance.” In a breach of contract action, in addition to or in lieu of monetary damages, the court may order a party to carry out the terms of the agreement.

EVIDENCE

EVIDENCE:

Testimony, documents, and other physical objects offered to prove or disprove a disputed fact that is material to the plaintiff’s cause of action or the defendant’s affirmative defense. Only relevant evidence may be submitted to the jury, therefore, it is often the case that much of the information obtained during discovery is not admissible at trial.

AJUDGMENT

JUDGMENT:

The decision of the judge or jury entered by the court at the conclusion of the lawsuit. In most circumstances, judgment is entered based on a jury’s verdict after trial. Under certain circumstances, such as when the court sustains a demurrer without leave to amend or grants a motion for summary judgment, judgment may be entered before trial.

JUDGMENT NOTWITHSTANDING THE VERDICT

JUDGMENT NOTWITHSTANDING THE VERDICT:

The court can enter a judgment that is contrary to the jury’s verdict if it finds that the jury’s verdict was not supported by the evidence or the law.

LEADING QUESTIONS

LEADING QUESTIONS:

Questions which suggest the answer in the body of the question. Leading questions generally require a “yes” or “no” response from the witness. An example of a leading question: “Isn’t it true that the light was red when you entered the intersection?”

MEDIATION

MEDIATION:

A voluntary method for resolving disputes in which a someone trained in assisting the parties negotiate a settlement, a mediator, works with all sides to a dispute in an effort to arrive at an agreement by which the conflict is resolved. Unlike an arbitrator, a mediator does not arrive at a decision by which the parties will be bound; he or she merely facilitates the settlement discussions among the parties.

ANSWER

MOTIONS:

Motions may be made by any party to a lawsuit for a variety of reasons and request that the court enter an order of some kind. Some of the most common are motions to compel a party to participate in discovery, motions requesting additional time to do something, and motions continuing trial. A motion for summary judgment requests that the court effectively dispose of a lawsuit by ruling that it has no merit as a matter of law. If a motion for summary judgment is brought by a defendant and granted by the court, the lawsuit is over, absent an appeal.

NON-ECONOMIC DAMAGES

NON-ECONOMIC DAMAGES:

Non-economic damages are those designed to compensate for loss of quality of life, pain, suffering, inconvenience, humiliation, and other consequences of injury the value of which a dollar sum must be determined by a judge or jury.

NONSUIT

NONSUIT:

The court will grant a nonsuit and enter judgment for the defendant if, after plaintiff puts on all of his/her evidence at trial, the court finds that plaintiff has failed to carry his/her burden of proof on one or more issues necessary to the cause of action or legal theory on which the lawsuit was brought.

A nonsuit may or will be granted when there is an irregularity in the proceedings during trial or when nine of the twelve jurors are unable to reach a decision. In these cases of nonsuit, the case will be ordered to be re-tried.

OPENING STATEMENT

OPENING STATEMENT:

At the beginning of a trial, the attorneys for each party are permitted (but not required) to tell the judge and jury what they expect the evidence to be during the trial. The statements by the attorneys are not evidence and the attorneys are not permitted to “argue” their case to the jury during opening statement.

PLAINTIFF

PLAINTIFF

The person(s) who files a civil complaint seeking money damages and/or equitable relief for an alleged civil wrong. A “person” under the law may be a corporation or other entity.

PUNITIVE DAMAGES

PUNITIVE DAMAGES:

Punitive damages are awarded to a plaintiff, not to compensate him or her for the injury suffered or damages incurred, but to punish the defendant with the expectation that doing so will discourage future misconduct. Punitive damages are generally available only when a jury finds that the conduct of the defendant knew its action would injure the plaintiff or acted in reckless disregard for the likelihood that its action would injure the plaintiff.

RELEVANT EVIDENCE

RELEVANT EVIDENCE

Relevant evidence is evidence which has a tendency in reason to prove or disprove a disputed material fact, i.e., a fact necessary to the plaintiff’s case or to the defendant’s defense.

TRIAL

TRIAL:

The procedure by which the dispute between plaintiff(s) and defendant(s) is ultimately resolved. The parties are generally entitled to a jury trial in which nine of twelve members must find in favor of a party in order for that party to prevail. A judge may preside over the trial if the parties all agree to waive their right to a jury or if the facts are not in dispute and the only issue remaining is one of law.

TRIER OF FACT

TRIER OF FACT:

In most lawsuits there are disputed issues of fact which must be resolved. The parties are entitled to have a jury decide all questions of fact unless they stipulate or agree to waive a jury, in which case the judge will sit as the trier of fact. Once the trier of fact decides what the facts are, it must then apply those facts to the law to reach a verdict.

VERDICT

VERDICT:

The decision by the trier of fact based on the facts as it has found them and the law as it applies to those facts.