Putting the Civil Law into Laymen’s Terms


Law school attendance does a lot of things to people that graduate and pass the bar. It teaches lawyers to use words that the pedestrian on the street cannot understand. It teaches lawyers to use concepts that are against the grain, so to speak, against common beliefs or even core beliefs.  This very brief article will help you follow in laymen’s terms some concepts that are frequently used in civil court.

Plaintiff is a person or corporation bringing a lawsuit.

Defendant is a person or corporation on trial defending the lawsuit.

Voir dire is the jury selection process.

Evidence is information from the witness stand, document, exhibit that is received by the jury to help them evaluate the case before them. What lawyers and judges participating in the trial say is not evidence.

Types of evidence are direct testimony, such as a witness says I saw the defendant run the red light. Circumstantial evidence is a series of indirect events that make it more likely to be true. If you saw someone indoors with a wet raincoat and umbrella you would conclude it is raining outside. There is documentary evidence, such as a map, a deed, a document, a picture, a video tape.

Deposition testimony is sworn testimony previously taken before the trial and preserved for court. It is as valuable as a person saying the same thing in court.

Limited evidence is information that a jury can only consider to prove one point, and cannot be used to prove another thing about the case. A good example is where two people are on trial and evidence is admitted against one party, but it is not evidence against the other person on trial.

Burden of proof is simply the weight of the evidence that makes the theory of recovery for the Plaintiff more likely than not, and it can also mean the weight of the evidence that makes the theory of the Defendant more likely than not.

Jury instructions are simply the rules the jury hears and receives in writing from the judge about the law that governs the case that is being decided. Those instructions change depending upon the case being tried and depends on certain witnesses, such as experts.

Expert witnesses are those people who have specialized skill, or education, or training in certain areas. They are charged with knowing more than the average person.  A good example is a physician.

Interrogatories are written questions and answers made under oath typically by one of the persons on trial. It is treated as if it were made at the trial.

Requests for admissions are statements that a party says is true or the party did not answer. If there is no response, it is deemed true.

Stipulations is an agreement between all the parties on trial that certain facts are true, such as Highway 11 runs east and west.

Judicial Notice is where the Court in the trial makes a finding that certain facts cannot be disputed. A good example is that the sun sets in the west. The jury is told that they must accept these facts as proven.

Credibility of witnesses is simply saying the witness is believable or unbelievable, in whole or in part.

Negligence is the failure to use ordinary or reasonable care in doing something or not doing something. Running a red light is a violation of the standard of care because the driver disregarded a traffic signal. Failing to timely mop up a spill at a gas station is an example of not doing something to prevent an accident.

Causation simply means that in a negligence claim there was a cause in fact by someone’s conduct. Legal cause means that the conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm and that the result of the conduct was reasonably foreseeable.

Willful and wanton misconduct is intentional with knowledge that serious injury will probably occur, or with a disregard of its harm to others. For example, driving drunk on the wrong side of the road at a high rate of speed is traditionally viewed as willful and wanton misconduct.

Damages is the amount of money that will be reasonably used to compensate the Plaintiff for claimed loss or harm which has been proven and can include future loss or claim. There are elements of damage and they are separate, such as medical bills, pain and suffering, future damage, disfigurement, loss of enjoyment of life, mental suffering and other matters as well.

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