Common Personal Injury Law Terms

There are a lot of terms common to personal injury law that you might not hear in other contexts. We wanted to explain what some of these terms are in easy-to-understand terms. Of course, you can always ask us for further explanation as it relates to your case.

Scroll through all the terms or click on the first letter of the term you’re looking for to jump there quickly.

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An affidavit is a voluntary written statement of facts made and signed under oath before a notary public.


Arbitration is a way to handle disputes outside of the court system. Here’s how it works: the parties involved agree ahead of time to have a neutral third-party (known as the “arbitrator”) decide the case. (Also see: Arbitrator, Mandatory Arbitration)


An arbitrator is an individual or panel of individuals who is the decision maker in the arbitration hearing. Individuals are often retired judges or experienced attorneys. (Also see: Arbitration, Mandatory Arbitration)

Assumption of Risk

An assumption of risk is a defense to a personal injury that claims the Plaintiff knew the risks of whatever dangerous condition or activity caused the injury but chooses to participate anyways. As a result of this choice, the Plaintiff is responsible for his or her own injury.

Attorney-Client Privilege

Communications between an attorney and his or her client are entirely confidential. These communications are given special protection under the law, and no one else (particularly their opponents in a lawsuit) are entitled to gain access to them. Also, most documents produced by an attorney and his staff about the client’s case are also privileged. This is referred to as the attorney work-product privilege.

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Bad Faith

Bad faith is a term used to describe conduct by an insurer that violates its duties to its policy holder, the insured. (Also see: Insured)

Breach of Duty

A breach of duty is the breaking or violating of any right, duty, or obligation by intentional or negligent action of another person. (Also see: Negligence)

Burden of Proof

A burden of proof is the obligation a person bringing a claim forward has to support their claim with enough evidence. If an attorney is assisting you, he or she will help overcome your burden of proof. (Also see: Claim)

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Cause of Action

A cause of action is a fact or facts that enable a person to file a lawsuit.

Civil Rule 35 Examination

The Civil Rule 35 examination allows the Defendant, with good cause, to have a medical expert of their choosing examine and evaluate the Plaintiff’s injuries. It is also referred to as the defense medical exam (DME) or “Independent Medical Exam” (IME) by insurance companies.


A claim is a formal demand for compensation for losses due to an injury. (Also see: Damages, Injury)


A claimant is the person or party bringing forward a claim. The plaintiff in a personal injury case may also be known as the claimant. (Also see: Claim)

Class Action

A class action is a lawsuit in which a court authorizes a person or small group of people to represent the interests of a large group of people with common characteristics or interests.

Comparative Fault

Comparative fault is a legal doctrine for a case where both parties played a role in what happened and thus both are at fault to some degree. Comparative fault ultimately reduces the Plaintiff’s recovery in proportion to the percentage of negligence or fault attributed to the Plaintiff. For example, if a Plaintiff was awarded $10,000.00 dollars in damages but was found to be 25% at fault, their award will be reduced by 25% to $7,500.00.


A complaint is a written document filed by the Plaintiff with the court which initiates a lawsuit. The complaint sets forth the facts of the incident, the Plaintiff’s general injuries, damages, why the Defendant is liable for them, and what types of compensation are being requested.

Compensatory Damages

Compensatory damages are monies awarded to compensate an injured individual for what they have experienced because of the negligent act. This involves two parts. The first is to reimburse actual costs called special damages, such as past and future medical bills and lost earnings, lost earning capacity, damage to personal property, etc. The second is for general damages including elements such as past and future pain and suffering, reduction in the quality of life, emotional distress, etc. (Also see: Damages)

Contingent Fee Agreement

In most cases, when an injured person, or the family member of a deceased person, hires an attorney to represent them in a lawsuit, they both sign a contingent fee agreement. “Contingent fee” means the attorney is being hired on the basis that they will only receive a fee from the client if the client receives money from the person causing their injuries.


A claim made to offset another claim, filed by the defendant against the Plaintiff.  (Also see: Claim)

Cross Examination

Cross examination is the questioning of a witness by the opposing party. This follows the direct examination of the witness by the attorney for the side in whose favor he/she is testifying.

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Damages are money or property that a judge, arbitrator, or jury can award to an injured person. Damages are awarded in various categories. Compensatory damages compensate the plaintiff for actual dollar-value losses (e.g., medical expenses, both past and future), lost income, loss of future earning capacity, etc. General damages, which are also a form of compensatory damages, cover more intangible losses, such as pain, suffering, humiliation, the loss of enjoyment of life as well as grief suffered from the loss of a loved one. Punitive damages (which are rare and not allowed in most cases under Washington law) serve to punish a defendant for extreme behavior and which serve to deter others from similar conduct. (Also see: Compensatory Damages, General Damages, Punitive Damages)

Defective Product

A defective product is one that causes injury to a person because of some defect in the product (e.g., manufacturing defect, design defect, or inadequate warning).

Defense Medical Exam (DME)

Also known as the Civil Rule 35 Examination (CR35) allows the defense, with good cause, to have a medical expert of their choosing examine and evaluate the Plaintiff’s injuries. (Also see: Civil Rule 35 Examination)


A Defendant is the party the Plaintiff claims is responsible for his/her damages and from whom the Plaintiff seeks some form of relief; the person or entity that has been sued.

Demand Letter

A demand letter is a letter stating a legal right and an amount due as compensation for injuries to a person and/or property. This is often sent to the at-fault party’s insurance company prior to a lawsuit getting filed with the Court.


A deposition is a form of discovery whereby the attorney calling for the deposition has the right to ask questions and obtain answers from a party, witness, or expert while that individual is under oath. A court reporter makes a word for word record of all questions and testimony provided at the deposition. (Also see: Discovery Process)

Discovery Process

The discovery process is the procedure for obtaining and examining documents and physical evidence, as well as questioning of individuals through which the parties learn about the other sides’ case. Discovery methods include interrogatories, Requests for Production of documents and things, and depositions. (Also see: Deposition)

District Court

A district court is a court of limited jurisdiction in Washington which can decide most types of cases whose claimed damages do not exceed $100,000.


A duty is the responsibility of others to act according to the law. (Also see: Breach of Duty)

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Earning Capacity

An earning capacity is a person’s ability to earn a living based on their education, training, and experience. A person’s earning capacity can be affected in a serious collision or incident if they can no longer return to their pre-injury career or profession.


An exhibit is a document or item offered for evidence at a trial or hearing.

Expert Witness

An expert witness is an individual who possesses specialized knowledge through skill, education, training, or experience beyond that of the ordinary person or juror, and whose knowledge will aid the jury, judge, or arbitrator in reaching a decision.

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General Damages

Money for pain and suffering, disability, reduction in quality of life and other elements that do not have a specific dollar amount attached to them. (Also see: Damages, Compensatory Damages, Punitive Damages)


A guardian is a person with the lawful power and duty to take care of an individual and manage that person’s property and/or rights.

Guardian Ad Litem

A Guardian Ad Litem is an attorney appointed by the court to take legal action on behalf of a minor or an adult not able to handle his or her own affairs.

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Insurance Medical Examination or Independent Medical Examination, a type of medical evaluation performed by an insurance doctor.


The insured is a person who purchases an insurance policy or is otherwise covered by it.


The insurer is an underwriter or insurance company with whom a contract of insurance is made which may or may not provide coverage for the event injury.


Interrogatories are written questions submitted by one party to another party during the discovery process to which written answers must be given under oath.

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Joint And Several Liability

Joint and several liability is a legal doctrine that makes each of the parties who are responsible for an injury responsible for all the damages awarded in a lawsuit. This allows the plaintiff to obtain all of the award even if one of the at fault parties cannot pay.  (Also see: Damages)


A judgment is a final order which puts an end to a lawsuit. The judgment states the final amount of any monetary award made to a party by a judge, jury, or arbitrators, as well as which party must pay for it.


Jurisdiction is the authority given by law to a court to try cases and rule on legal matters. This can be designated by geographic area, subject matter or type of case, the amount claimed as damages or a combination of these elements.

Jury Instructions

Jury instructions are the rules and laws juries should follow when deciding a case.

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Lay Witness

A lay witness is a person without special skill or training, with knowledge based on his/her first-hand observations, whose testimony is helpful to determine the facts of the case.


Liability is the responsibility or fault for an incident resulting in injuries and damages to person and/or property.


A lien is a claim on a Plaintiff’s case in the amount of a debt the Plaintiff owes. A health care provider has a right to place a lien on the Plaintiff’s personal injury claim to guarantee that his/her bills will be paid when the Plaintiff’s case is resolved. An experienced injury attorney may be able to negotiate a client’s liens down. When this happens, the client will get to keep a greater portion of their settlement.


Litigation is a broad term that covers the process of a lawsuit from initial filing, through discovery to ultimate resolution. (Also see: Litigants)


Litigants are the persons, also known as parties, involved in a lawsuit.

Loss Of Consortium

Loss of consortium is a claim whereby the uninjured spouse of an injured party may bring a separate and distinct action against the wrongdoer for loss of society, affection, assistance, and conjugal fellowship, and loss or impairment of sexual relations in the marital relationship.

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Malpractice is misconduct in a professional capacity through negligence, carelessness, lack of skill, or malicious intent. Most often associated with medical doctors but it can apply to any profession, including attorneys.

Mandatory Arbitration (MAR)

Arbitration is required for all claims with damages less than $100,000. The arbitrator will render a decision that resolves the case. If either party is not satisfied with the arbitration award, they can appeal the award which then places the case back on the docket for trial. Not all counties have mandatory arbitration. (See our post on mandatory arbitration for more details on how this works.)


Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution. During an informal meeting, an impartial third person (mediator) meets with the parties separately and attempts to gets both parties to agree on a settlement.


To mitigate means to diminish or reduce. An injured party has the duty to mitigate his/her damages by taking reasonable steps to reduce economic loss and heal from physical injuries. (Also see: Damages)

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Negligence is the failure to exercise ordinary care. It is the doing of some act that a reasonably careful person would not do under the same or similar circumstances, or in not doing some act that a reasonable person would have done.

New Money

In the insurance industry, the phrase “new money” refers to a settlement offer separate and apart from the Personal Injury Protection (PIP) benefits paid.

Notice of Claim

A notice of claim is an additional step and prerequisite to filing a lawsuit in a few particular situations, including those against any governmental agency or its employee. The document describes the claim in detail (date, type of incident, extent of damages or injuries, etc.) and must be served on the party allegedly responsible for those injuries and damages before a lawsuit can be filed.

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Ordinary Care

Ordinary care is that care which a reasonable and prudent person would exercise in the same or similar circumstances.

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Pain and Suffering

Pain and suffering are elements of the general damages sought by the Plaintiff in a personal injury case which does not have an itemized dollar amount. (Also see: Damages, General Damages)


A party is a person or entity that is a named in a legal proceeding or transaction.

Personal Injury Protection (PIP)

Personal Injury Protection (PIP) is a benefit under auto insurance policies which pays medical expenses (with no deductibles or co-pays) up to a defined limit, wage loss and household services expenses incurred as a result of a motor vehicle collision. PIP coverage is mandatory in Washington, but it may be rejected in writing by the policyholder. (See our post on Everything You Need to Know about PIP for more.)


The Plaintiff is the party who requests damages and initiates a civil lawsuit.


Pleadings are the written documents filed by the Parties with the court which explain the basis of their claims and defenses in a case.

Preponderance of Evidence

A preponderance of =evidence is the standard applied to the evidence for Plaintiff to win in a civil law case. The Plaintiff’s evidence in the case must be of greater weight or more convincing than the evidence which is offered by the defendant. This is a much lower standard than “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” that is used in criminal cases.

Pro Se

Pro Se is a party who appears for and represents himself/herself in court without hiring an attorney.

Proximate Cause

Proximate cause is the event which leads directly to a particular injury-causing result. A person generally is liable only if an injury was proximately caused by his or her action, or by his or her failure to act when he or she had a duty to act.

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Reasonable Person

A reasonable person is how a typical person, with ordinary prudence would act in certain circumstances. This is the standard against which the allegedly at-fault person’s conduct is compared.

Revised Code of Washington (RCW)

Revised Code of Washington (RCW) is the compilation of all the laws enacted by the Washington State legislature.

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Service of Process

Service of process is the formal delivery of a legal document to insure the opposing party is aware of the action and is given an opportunity to respond to it.


A settlement is the final resolution of a claim by agreement between the parties. (Also see: Claim)

Special Damages

Special damages are elements of a claim consisting of costs or expenses with a set dollar amount attributable to any injury or loss, including past, present, and future income loss, treatment costs, and other out-of-pocket expenses. (Also see: Pain and Suffering, Damages, Compensatory Damages, Punitive Damages)


A statute is a written law enacted by the legislature.

Statute of Limitations

A statute of limitations is the time limits for filing a lawsuit.


A stipulation is a written agreement by opposing parties in a case.

Strict Liability

Strict liability is a legal doctrine that makes a person liable for injuries and damages their actions or products cause, regardless of any negligence on their part. For example, a dog owner is strictly liable under Washington law for damages to be proven when their dog bites another person even if the dog owner did nothing unreasonable.


A subpoena is a written command requiring a person to appear at a certain time and place to give testimony at a deposition or other proceeding including trial or hearing.


Subrogation is when an insurance company pays the claim of a policy holder, it also requires the policy holder to return the money if they obtain compensation from a person or manufacturer who caused the accident or damage.


Summons is notice to Defendants that a lawsuit has been commenced against them and they must answer the Complaint within the stated deadline, usually twenty days.

Superior Court

Superior Court is the primary trial courts in Washington State. Superior Courts are administered by the counties and are the courts with general jurisdiction for claims in matters exceeding $300.

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Testimony is spoken evidence given by a witness, under oath.


A tort is a “wrong” used to describe an action or failure to act, other than a breach of contract, committed against a person or their property.

Trial De Novo

A trial de novo means “new trial.” In mandatory arbitration, after the parties receive the award or decision, a party not satisfied with the award may appeal by filing a request for a trial with the Superior Court. The request must be made within twenty (20) days of the award being filed with the court. (Also see: Mandatory Arbitration.)

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A venue is the appropriate place (i.e. the particular County or Federal Court) for a lawsuit to be filed.


A verdict is the final decision or finding by a jury on the factual issues of a case which is then accepted by the court and becomes a judgment. (Also see: Judgment)

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