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Legal Terms to Help You Understand Your Case

Mecklenburg County North Carolina Courthouse

Most people think that the law is made up of a lot of different terms that are confusing. Some may have an understanding of basic legal terms. For example, you may know that a plaintiff is the person who is bringing a claim, or filing a lawsuit. The plaintiff is the person who has suffered some type of injury. It could be an injury from a car accident or an injury at the hands of a doctor in a medical malpractice claim. Therefore it logically follows that the defendant is the person who is being sued, the person who must defend against the plaintiff's allegations. In the case of a car accident, the defendant is the person alleged to have caused the accident that injured the plaintiff. In a medical malpractice claim the defendant might be the doctor or the hospital where the plaintiff was injured. 

There are a number of other basic legal terms that everyone should be aware of particularly if you are planning to bring your case to court.

Statute of Limitations. This is the time that you have to bring a claim. Statutes of limitations set forth the maximum amount of time after an injury occurred for a claim to be filed in court. Statutes of limitations vary depending on the type of claim, some are short, some are longer. In North Carolina, the statute of limitations for personal injury claims is three years. That means that in most cases, you have three years from the date of an injury in say a car accident to file a claim. If you try to file a claim 3 years and 1 week after being injured you will likely be out of court. 

Statutes of limitations can have exceptions so it is important that you consult with a Charlotte, North Carolina attorney to see what statute of limitations and possible exceptions apply to your case. 

Civil Case. A civil case happens when one party alleges that they have been harmed by another party. In the case of a car accident, the injured party (plaintiff) alleges that the driver of the car that caused the accident (defendant) harmed him/her. 

In addition to personal injury cases (which include car accidents, medical malpractice and wrongful death), examples of civil cases include: workers’ compensation, divorce, child custody, monetary disputes, contract disputes, property disputes, employment disputes, estate issues and housing disputes (foreclosures, evictions, rent).

While criminal cases are explained below, the information in this article applies strictly to civil cases. 

Criminal Case. When a crime is committed, or a law broken, the person who committed the crime (defendant) is arrested. The government (plaintiff) may then choose to file a case against the defendant. Examples of crimes that could lead to a criminal case include: murder, robbery, assault, battery, theft, arson, and traffic violations including driving under the influence. 

Pleadings. These are the documents that both the plaintiff and the defendant file throughout the case. 

Complaint. Assuming that you are filing timely, the pleading that starts a case is a complaint. In the case of a car accident, the plaintiff files a civil complaint against the defendant. While plaintiffs can file a complaint on their own behalf (this is referred to as a pro se plaintiff), it is a good idea to have an attorney file a complaint on your behalf. The Complaint is the document that sets forth the plaintiff’s position and it could be the plaintiff’s only chance to tell his/her side of the story. 

Answer. This is the pleading that the defendant must file. The Answer is the defendant’s response to each and every allegation in the plaintiff’s complaint. 

Discovery. Discovery is the exchange of information between the parties. It includes all information that will be presented at trial including all of the evidence and witnesses that exist. Unlike what you see on television, where one party surprises the other party with witnesses or information at trial, the discovery process is designed to prevent surprises. In fact, a judge may prevent a party from using information or witnesses not exchanged during discovery. 

Deposition. A deposition is another part of discovery. It is a statement given under oath, but not in court, by the parties (plaintiff and defendant) and their witnesses (if there are any). At a minimum there will be two depositions in a case, the plaintiff and the defendant. Some cases have a lot of witnesses and there will be more depositions.  In the case of a car accident, there may have been other drivers, or pedestrians who saw the car accident and will be called to give a statement about what they saw. 

During a deposition both the plaintiff and defendant attorneys will ask questions of the person being deposed (deponent). Depositions can take the form of a written transcript or a videotape. Both parties will be given a copy of the deposition to assist them in preparing for trial.

Burden of Proof. In almost all civil lawsuits, the plaintiff has the burden of proof. The plaintiff must prove that the allegations in his/her complaint are true and that any alleged damages were caused by the defendant. In the majority of civil cases, plaintiffs must prove their case by a “preponderance of the evidence.” A plaintiff must show that it is more likely than not that a defendant was at fault. In the case of a car accident, a plaintiff would have to show that it was more likely than not that the defendant was at fault for the car accident. Assuming a plaintiff can meet this burden, it then shifts to the defendant to provide a rebuttal. 

The burden of proof in a civil case is a lower burden than that of a criminal case. In a criminal case, the plaintiff (the government) has to prove that the defendant committed the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” 

Trial. There are a number of reasons why a case may not get to trial but, assuming that discovery is over and there will be a trial, there are two types of trials in civil cases. 

  • Jury trial. A jury is a group of impartial members of the community tasked with listening to and considering all of the evidence presented by a plaintiff and a defendant. The jury’s decision is binding on all parties. Jury trials are not guaranteed in all cases. North Carolina’s constitution and North Carolina’s General Statute both provide for the right to jury trials in certain cases. If one party wants a jury trial it must be requested. 
  • Non-jury trial. Sometimes referred to as a “bench trial” because it takes place before a judge, there is no jury. The judge is the trier of fact and the sole decision maker. Bench trials are often quicker then jury trials, in party because there is no picking of a jury so the trial can start faster. 

Let Our Charlotte Attorneys Review Your Case

The Charlotte, North Carolina based lawyers at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC  are experienced attorneys. They understand the law and what legal concepts apply to your case, they can help you determine if you have a claim worth pursuing.  Please contact our office at 704-714-1450. There is no fee for an initial consultation. 

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