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Legal Term FAQ

This section responds to some common questions, and defines some words and phrases often used when talking about legal cases. To be clear, every person’s situation and every case is different. Nothing in this FAQ section constitutes legal advice to the reader.

What is the difference between civil and criminal law?

Civil and criminal law differ in many ways including the parties involved, the standard of proof, the burden of proof, and potential penalties.

Pillars in front of a court house.

I see the phrase “mass tort” used a lot, what does that mean?

To understand the meaning of “mass tort,” you first have to understand the meaning of “tort.” A “tort” is a legal term that basically means something legally “wrong” done to a person or their property, but without violating a contract.

Okay, what is a multidistrict litigation?

A multidistrict litigation (“MDL”) is a federal civil litigation in which the courts use special procedures to simplify and accelerate the handling of large numbers of complex cases with common factual issues while minimizing duplicated effort and avoiding inconsistent rulings.

I’ve heard that MDLs have “bellwether” cases. What is a “bellwether” case?

In modern usage, bellwether refers to a trendsetter or a leading indicator, from which one can predict future events. That is the meaning of the term as used in an MDL.

What is the difference between an MDL and a class action?

In a class action, the lead (“representative”) plaintiff stands in for every person who meets the criteria the court used to define the class, so the case proceeds on behalf of all plaintiffs and all potential plaintiffs who have not expressly opted out.

What is a statute of limitations?

“Statute” is just another word for a law. A statute of limitations is a law (or a section of a law) setting a maximum time limit on how long an injured party can delay before suing the person or company who harmed them.

What does it mean to say the statute of limitations has been tolled?

When the statute of limitations has been tolled, the calculation of time remaining in the limitations period immediately stops as if frozen in place when a bell rang.

Statutes of Repose Can Keep Plaintiffs up at Night

Statutes of repose and statutes of limitations each impose time limits on defendants’ potential liability but do so differently and for different reasons.

What is preemption?

The “Preemption doctrine” states the legal rule that a valid federal law takes precedence over state laws on the same subject. This legal doctrine effectively nullifies any state law conflicting with federal law and can prevent states from passing their own laws if Congress has expressly claimed federal preemption.