What Is a Plaintiff in a Lawsuit?

Plaintiff or Claimant in a Civil Lawsuit

Plaintiff in a Lawsuit
••• Robert Daly

The plaintiff is the person bringing a lawsuit to court by filing a plea or motion. More frequently these days, in civil law cases, a plaintiff is often called a claimant. That is, the plaintiff or claimant is the person bringing a claim against another person. The term claimant is also used in arbitration cases and tort (negligence) cases. 

The terms "plaintiff" and "defendant" go back to medieval times when English common law practices came into being. The term "plaintiff" comes from the Old English for "aggrieved" or "plainant" and it has the same root as "complaint." 

The other party in a lawsuit is the defendant in a criminal case or respondent (the one who responds) in a civil case. The defendant is the person being sued or the person against whom the complaint is filed.

In a civil case, the jurisdiction (what court the case is tried in) depends on the type of case and the location of the criminal case, and the government entity that has jurisdiction is considered the plaintiff. For example, kidnapping is a federal crime, so a federal prosecutor brings a case against the defendant and prosecutes it in federal court.

Two Types of Court Cases - Civil and Criminal

The two basic types of court cases are criminal and civil. Processes and terms are different for civil and criminal cases. For example, the plaintiff in a criminal case is society as a whole on behalf of the victim. The plaintiff in a civil case is another person or entity.

Plaintiffs in Civil Litigation

Most business litigation deals with civil law; that is, one party bringing a lawsuit against another party (a plaintiff bringing a suit against a defendant). A "party" in these cases can be an individual or a business or an organization (like a non-profit organization).

Civil law has mostly to do with the failure of one party to do something or avoid doing something that causes harm to another person. This concept is sometimes called specific performance, meaning that the defendant has failed to perform a specific act. 

For instance, if one party (the defendant) fails to pay money owed to another party (the plaintiff), the plaintiff must go to court to get that money back.

In the official court documents, the plaintiff is always listed first vs. the defendant. For example, in Roe v. Wade, the 1971 Supreme Court abortion case, Jane Roe was the plaintiff (appellant) and Henry Wade, the district attorney, was the defendant (appellee).

How a Plaintiff Files a Lawsuit

To begin a lawsuit, the plaintiff must file a complaint and a summons in the appropriate court. These are two separate documents.

  • The complaint sets up the reasons for the lawsuit by describing what the defendant did wrong (breach of contract, for example).
  • The summons includes a copy of the complaint and sets specific requirements for the other party to respond. Sometimes the response is in written form, while at other times the summons is to appear in court (in small claims court, for example).

These documents, along with other documents setting out the plaintiff's case, are referred to as "pleadings." The lawsuit proceeds from these actions.

At any point in the process, the litigants (plaintiff and defendant) can agree to use arbitration or mediation to reach a settlement.

The Burden of Proof for the Plaintiff in Civil Lawsuits

In both civil and criminal cases, the plaintiff has the burden of proof. The plaintiff is required to prove their case is true, against a standard. That makes sense because the plaintiff is the party bringing the suit to court, so he or she should have to prove why the suit should be heard and why their claim has validity. 

In civil cases, the burden of proof standard is usually preponderance of evidence. Unlike criminal cases, where the burden of proof is reasonable doubt, the preponderance of evidence is less difficult to prove. This term refers to the weight of the evidence, not the amount.

Under the preponderance standard, the plaintiff convinces the judge or jury that there is a greater than 50% chance that the claim is true.

Tax Cases: A Special Type of Plaintiff and Defendant

Most federal income tax disputes are between the IRS and the individual (or business) taxpayer. If a tax case goes to Tax Court, the individual taxpayer is the plaintiff and the IRS is the defendant. That's because the taxpayer is disputing the IRS ruling.

A tax court case begins with the filing of a petition by the taxpayer. Disputes involving $50,000 or less may be conducted under the Court's simplified small tax case procedure. Most of these disputes are settled by mutual agreement without a trial.


Article Sources

  1. Cornell Legal Information Institute. "Commercial Tort Claim." Accessed June 3, 2020.

  2. Cornell Legal Information Institute. "Securities Dispute Resolution: Response." Accessed June 3, 2020.

  3. United States Courts. "Civil Cases." Accessed June 3, 2020.

  4. United States Courts. "Summons in a Civil Action." Accessed July 7, 2020.

  5. Cornell Legal Information Institute. "Preponderance of the Evidence." Accessed June 3, 2020.

  6. United States Tax Court. "About the Court." Accessed June 3, 2020.