Common Misunderstood Legal Terms

Most people believe that attorneys use “complicated” language, or what some refer to as legalese.  While the legal terms used in the everyday life of a lawyer are well understood (for the most part) by other attorneys, those who don’t practice law, who have been arrested for a crime, or who are involved in a lawsuit often don’t understand these terms.  From assault and battery to robbery, burglary, malfeasance, depose, and punitive or compensatory damages, we’ll try to put these legal terms in a light that makes them easier to understand.

Assault and battery

Many people mistakenly assume that assault and battery are one and the same, but they’re actually different.  In criminal law, criminal assault is usually a lesser crime than battery and is defined under state law.  Essentially, assault involves threatening someone else with violence, where the person threatening has the physical ability to follow through on that threat.  It is the threat that brings about criminal charges.

Battery is a threat that is carried through, leaving the victim harmed in some way – even if that harm isn’t serious enough to leave a mark on the victim.  Battery can be the simple act of touching or groping another person who does not want to be touched.

Robbery and burglary

Robbery and burglary are similar in that they are both property crimes and involve theft, however it’s the circumstances surrounding these crimes that set them apart.

When robbery occurs, a victim (or victims) must be present, and property, money, or something else of value is taken by someone via force, a threat, or intimidation.  Someone may be charged with robbery even if that person attempts to take something of value without success.

Burglary does not require that a victim or victims be present, only that an individual unlawfully enters a home, business, or other structure to commit a felony or theft.


A person may be deposed if he or she has information pertaining to a case; you do not have to be a defendant or plaintiff to be deposed.  Simply stated, depose means to give evidence under oath.  You may be deposed if you were a witness to a crime; a deposition is testimony that is given prior to trial, outside of the courtroom.


Many people get the terms malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance confused.  Where misfeasance is conduct that’s inappropriate but not unlawful and nonfeasance is failure to act in situations where there is a duty to act, malfeasance is a bit more serious level of wrongdoing.  Malfeasance occurs when someone participates intentionally in conduct that is unlawful or wrongful, particularly officials or public employees.

Compensatory and punitive damages

Compensatory and punitive damages are often awarded in personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits.  Compensatory damages are the most common, and include compensation of costs to the plaintiff by the responsible party for all expenses related to the plaintiff’s injuries or damage.  For instance, compensatory damages may include lost wages because of the plaintiff’s inability to work due to his/her injuries, medical costs, emotional distress, even the cost of repairs to property damaged in the incident that resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries or value of property that may have been destroyed.

Punitive damages (also referred to as exemplary damages) are sometimes awarded in lawsuits to punish the individual for his/her wrongdoing or outrageous conduct.  This may be given in addition to compensatory damages when a defendant’s actions were particularly violent, malicious, or egregious.

Which brings us to egregious.  Many people have heard the word on television or come across it while reading, but what does egregious really mean?  It’s simply acting in a way that is appalling or atrocious, in other words shocking or excessively bad behavior.

There are many legal terms that people see often but don’t really understand – due diligence is another term that comes to mind.  What is due diligence?  Search it on Google, and you’ll find plenty of information.  One thing is for certain, though; you don’t “do” diligence!

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