The legal term gravamen is not used commonly, but it refers to the most pertinent part of a grievance, or of a legal complaint. The gravamen of a matter boils down to the essence, or core, of the complaint. For instance, to boil down the essence of a personal injury case, the gravamen might be the other driver’s negligence, which ultimately caused the plaintiff’s injuries. To explore this concept, consider the following gravamen definition.

Definition of Gravamen


gruh-vey-muh n


  1. The substance, or essence, of a complaint.
  2. The part of a criminal accusation that weighs most heavily against the accused.


Circa 1600       Latin gravāre  (to load)

What is Gravamen

The term gravamen is rooted in the Latin verb gravāre, which means “to burden,” and the Latin adjective grave, which means “important,” or “serious.” This today’s legal system, gravamen refers to the most significant part of a person’s complaint or grievance against another. While any complaint contains many issues and facts, a reference to a case’s gravamen refers to that essential element, or gist, of the complaint. This term is most often used in judicial opinions, and legal submissions.

Gravamen Test

In contract law, determination of the primary purpose of a contract might be necessary should something go wrong. This is especially important when the contract contains elements of both services and goods. Here, it is important to know that transactions in goods or personal property (sale or transfer of goods) are governed by the Uniform Commercial Code (U.C.C.), Article 2, and transactions for services are not.

As an example, gravamen would be an important issue, should Luke decide to install a swimming pool in his backyard. He enters into a contract with a pool installer, and after the project is complete, Luke discovers the diving board is faulty. This contract is mixed, containing elements of both service (pool and equipment installation), and sale of goods, which are the equipment actually installed, which were part of the total price charged.

There are two ways in which a court can determine whether a contract complaint is governed by the U.C.C.

  • Predominant Purpose Test – this seeks to determine whether the original contract was primarily for goods, or primarily for services. In Luke’s example above, his contract was primarily for the service of installing a swimming pool. The goods that were bought and installed are secondary.
  • Gravamen Test – this looks, not at the purpose of the contract as a whole, but to whether the disputed issues of the case relate to faulty service, or defective goods. In Luke’s example above, the gravamen, or primary issue, of the case has to do with a defective good, as he found no fault in the service or installation.

The courts in many jurisdictions use the Predominant Purpose Test, which may cause some confusion among would-be plaintiffs, who only want to hold the responsible party to its promise to provide quality goods or services. To many, it seems that the provider of service in a primarily service-related contract should have nothing to do with a product warranty on equipment installed during the service.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Intent – A resolve to perform an act for a specific purpose; a resolution to use a particular means to a specific end.
  • Negligence – Failure to exercise a degree of care that would be taken by another reasonable person in the same circumstances.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.