What’s with all the Latin legal terms?

insurance,Our Blog | January 23, 2017

How did “people suing insurance companies” become such a thing?

First of all, it is important to think of “law” as an alternative to war and violence. Three thousand years ago, no one had rights. Powerful parties were free to pillage, rob and slaughter. You couldn’t take these people to court.

A tooth for a tooth

In ancient Babylon, the ethic of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” evolved. It appears in both the code of Hammurabi and in the Torah. It evolved not to protect the little guy, but as a way for competing factions to avoid bloodshed. If a henchman of one band lost an eye, he was able to literally “sue” for the plucking of his attacker’s eye. Eye-for-an-eye established proportionality as a principle: one eye for one eye, and no more.

Gradually, a legal profession formed to represent these factions. In Greece and Rome, lawyers represented parties who were wronged or harmed, seeking satisfaction. Lawyers were seen as friends of the plaintiff who knew the right things to say in court. By the first century AD, lawyers were seen as an actual profession.

The meaning of tort

Many of our legal terms originate in Rome, and around the world we still use Latin phrases. Tort, for instance, simply means harm, or wrong. We know from experience that clients tend to get lost when they hear Latin.

By the Middle Ages, lawyers were treated with deference, as learned men – because the law kept getting more complex, especially in England. Many of today’s legal traditions originated in Britain. Since the time of Robin Hood, English nobles forced the king to acknowledge that they had rights. These rights gradually applied to every Englishman. As the age of colonization arrived, English law became the bulwark of laws in its colonies, including America.

In America, the rights of the “little guy” are encoded in the Declaration of Independence and our Bill of Rights. The wronged little guy could often sue the mighty and win.

Which brings us to today

In the 1970s, the legal profession acquired the right to advertise. That is how personal injury became what it is today – with all its billboards, TV ads, and headline stories detailing verdicts and settlements.

That’s the 60-second history of personal injury law, going back to Hammurabi. At Rosenthal Law, want you to understand why the law works the way it does. Call us with your injury problem – we’ll keep the Latin to a minimum.