Glossary of Key Legal Terms

*Please note that this glossary is intended to provide informal definitions that capture primary ideas. It does not provide formal legal definitions as would be used in court.

Claim/Cause of action – The legal and factual reason or grounds for bringing a legal action.

Complaint – The initial document submitted to the court, in which the plaintiff lays out the underlying facts and motivation for the action.

Consolidated action – Where two or more actions involve common questions of law or fact, the court may consolidate them into a single action with a single title that results in a single verdict. Alternatively, claims may be consolidated for pretrial purposes only. (See Multidistrict Litigation (MDL)).

Damages – Financial compensation awarded by the court to someone who has been injured by another’s actions. (See Loss)

Decree – A court decision or order. A Consent Decree is a voluntary agreement between two parties in which a person or company agrees to take specific actions without admitting fault or guilt. A consent decree must be approved by the court.

Defendant The individual or entity sued in a court of law.

Dismissal – The termination of a legal proceeding, for a specific procedural reason, without trial or prior to its completion.

Docket – The formal record that contains all the proceedings or important court actions for each case. Each docket is given a serial number called the docket number.

Due diligence – Reasonable effort to satisfy a legal requirement.

Finding – A court or jury decision on issues of fact.

Fine – A sum of money imposed as punishment for a wrongdoing.

Fraud – An incorrect representation of a factual matter, with the intent to deceive someone, that results in a loss.

Gross negligence – A conscious and voluntary failure to take reasonable care to prevent damage or injury. (See Negligence).

Indemnify – To reimburse another for his/her liability, damages, or costs. Typically, an obligation to indemnify comes from a contract, like an insurance policy or a settlement agreement.

Injury – In a legal setting, this refers to any harm caused to someone by the actions of someone else.

Lawsuit – A civil action filed in a court, in which a plaintiff claims to have suffered an injury caused by a defendant’s actions.

Liability – A legal responsibility for something (for example, responsibility to pay for damages caused).

Loss – The financial value placed on an injury caused by someone else’s negligence. (See Damages).

Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) – A centralized process to consolidate numerous related cases in a single court, so that multiple courts do not have to answer overlapping factual questions, thus saving time and money for both the court system and the parties involved in the cases. MDLs are initiated by the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.

Natural resource trustees – Under the Oil Pollution Act, a group of federal, state, and/or tribal government representatives who act on behalf of the public where natural resources have been injured.

Negligence – Failure to take reasonable care to prevent damage or injury. (See Gross negligence).

Order – In a legal setting, a verbal or written direction from a court or judge.

Parent company – A firm that owns enough stock in a “subsidiary” company to control it.

Party – Someone with a direct interest in a legal issue or proceeding (for example, the defendant).

Plaintiff – The individual or entity who initiates a lawsuit.

Plea agreement – An agreement in a criminal case between the accused and the prosecutor, in which the defendant pleads guilty to a particular charge in exchange for a concession from the prosecutor.  A plea agreement must be approved by the court.

Punitive damages – Fines assessed by a court against a defendant that are meant to punish the defendant for his/her conduct and to deter future wrongdoing. Typically, punitive damages are awarded in addition to the damages necessary to fully compensate the plaintiff for his/her injury.

Question of fact – An issue involving the resolution of a factual dispute. Questions of fact must be decided by a jury, not a judge. (See Question of law).

Question of law – An issue involving legal interpretation or application of the law. Questions of fact must be decided by a judge, not a jury. (See Question of fact).

Racketeering – An organized conspiracy to obtain money through illegal means, such as bribery or coercion.

Responsible party – The party responsible for a wrongdoing. Under the Oil Pollution act, the owner or operator or a vessel or facility that discharges oil is a responsible party and is liable for the oil spill’s removal costs.

Subsidiary company – A company that is controlled by a “parent” company, which owns a majority of the subsidiary’s stock.

Tort – A civil wrongdoing that causes injury to a person or property.

Willful misconduct – An intentional violation with full knowledge of its potential to cause injury.

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