Legal Terms Defined
As lawyers, we use a lot of words and phrases that are not used in everyday language. Here are several of these words and phrases defined and explained.
- Sovereign immunity [sov-rin, sov-er-in] – In short, sovereign immunity refers to the concept that the government cannot be sued without its consent. Sovereign immunity stems from the English rule that the “sovereign,” i.e. the king or queen, cannot be sued and held liable for any wrongs. The concept followed into the United States. While there are certain exceptions, the government is still generally immune from suit.
- Arbitration/alternative dispute resolution – Arbitration or alternative dispute resolution occurs when you’ve signed a document waiving your trial to a trial by jury, or your right to “go to court.” Often, nursing homes have residents or their families sign these types of documents on admission to the facility, so that the nursing home then can’t be sued if they provide bad care. Arbitration is extremely different than going to court. There are much different rules, your lawyer can only conduct limited investigations and get minimal evidence, and most importantly, there is no trial by jury. Instead, the entire case is decided by an arbitrator. Did you know you do not have to sign arbitration or alternative dispute resolutions in most instances?
- “Go to court” – this phrase is actually a very commonly asked question, “When will my case ‘go to court?’” As soon as a lawsuit is filed, the case is “in court.” While clients never go to court until there is a trial, the attorneys go to court on numerous occasions over the life of a case. While the ultimate outcome of the case isn’t decided on these occasions, judges make rulings on many legal issues that affect the case and its ultimate outcome.
- Mediation [mee-dee-ey-shuhn] – mediation is a tool used for settling cases or other disputes. Mediation is usually ordered by the judge before a case gets to trial. The parties and their attorneys come together and hire a mediator to learn about the case, listen to both sides, and help the sides come to an agreement or settlement. The mediator is either a lawyer with special training, or a retired judge. Unlike a judge, the mediator does not make any decisions for the parties. He or she simply serves as a neutral third party to try to get the sides to agree to a resolution of the case. Sometimes mediation ends in a successful settlement of the case, and sometimes it does not. Just because you participate in a mediation does not mean you have to reach a settlement during the mediation.
- Discovery [dih-skuhv–uh-ree] – After a lawsuit is filed, the case spends 99% of its time in this “discovery” phase. During this phase the parties, through their attorneys, send each other written questions and requests for documents, provide answers, provide documents, investigate the case, and provide sworn testimony or depositions. While this process sounds simple, it is not. It is also very important to gather the proof and information necessary to prove the case.
- Deposition [dep-uh–zish–uhn] – A deposition is where witnesses are asked questions by lawyers and give testimony under oath. There is no judge present at a deposition.
- Trial – Trial is when a jury hears all of the evidence in the case and decides who wins and who loses. Did you know trial by jury in civil cases is guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution? The United States is the only country that makes wide use of jury trials in non-criminal cases.
- Verdict [vur-dikt] – The verdict is what the decision of the jury is called. In Latin, verdict is a combination of two words – veritas, meaning truth, and dicere, meaning to speak. So, “verdict” means “to speak the truth.”
- Appeal [uh–peel] – When a case is finished, either by jury verdict or by the court’s dismissal of the case, the party who lost can file an appeal. In Kentucky, there are two courts of appeal – the Kentucky Court of Appeals and the Kentucky Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals has to hear appeals of civil cases, but the Kentucky Supreme Court does not. The Kentucky Supreme Court chooses whether or not to review the Court of Appeals’ decision in a civil case. Most often, the Kentucky Supreme Court chooses not to review the case.