A legal petition is the first official document that is filed in a legal action. The document provides a basic outline of the case, and its main purpose is to provide the defendant with notice of the impending lawsuit. Exactly what must be included in a petition varies slightly by state, but in all jurisdictions, the petition, also called a “complaint,” must contain a brief summary of what wrongs the plaintiff is claiming, and against whom the civil lawsuit is filed. To explore this concept, consider the following petition definition. To explore this concept, consider the following petition definition.

Definition of Petition


  1. A formal written request to have a legal matter heard and decided by the court.


  1. Make a formal request to an authority such as a court


1300-50            Middle English peticioun

Petition or Complaint

The terms petition and complaint are often used interchangeably in U.S. courts. The person filing the petition is known as the Plaintiff, or Petitioner, and the responding party is known as the Respondent or Defendant. Most commonly, in civil court, a petition or complaint is filed when a party feels they have been wronged in some way, and is seeking an award of damages. A petition or complaint may be filed in Family Court as well, however.

Information Included in a Legal Petition

The exact information included in a legal petition varies, depending on the nature of the case, and the laws of the state in which the petition is filed. While information relating directly to the case to be heard by the court varies a great deal, some information is required to be included in all petitions. These requirements are defined in each jurisdiction’s Rules of Civil Procedure, and usually include:

  • The identities of all parties to the dispute
  • The claim of the plaintiff and the facts that justify the claim
  • A demand for judgment or prayer for relief

Additional information included in a petition is a “demand for judgment” or “prayer for relief.” This section specifically lists what the plaintiff is asking the court to order, such as forcing the defendant to pay monetary damages, or ordering the defendant to fulfill his part of a contract.


Although the petition or complaint is the actual statement of what the lawsuit is about, the defendant or respondent must be notified of the lawsuit by a summons. The summons, filed with the court at the same time as the petition, advises the defendant that he is being sued, and provides information about how long he has to respond to the court. The summons also notifies the defendant how long he has to provide a response to the court, and outlines the consequences should he fail to do so. For example, in many jurisdictions, if the defendant does not respond within the allotted time period, a default judgment will be entered by the court in the petitioner’s favor. Both the summons and petition must be personally served on the defendant.

Answer to the Petition

Once a defendant has received a summons and petition, he is required to file an “answer” to the petition with the court. In the answer, the defendant tells the court his side of the story, and why he does not agree with certain facts in the legal petition. The answer to the petition must be filed with the court, and a copy must be served on the petitioner, though in most jurisdictions, the answer may be served by mail, rather than in person.

Cross Complaint

After receiving notification that they are being sued, some defendants choose to file a cross-complaint with the court, in addition to their answer to the petition. A cross complaint initiates another lawsuit against the original petitioner, stating that it is that individual who owes some form of damages to the defendant. A cross complaint may also name a third party if desired. For example, Debbie hires Bob to clean her above-ground swimming pool at the end of a harsh winter. She pays a $100 deposit, but fails to pay the remaining $400 he bid for the job. Bob files a summons and complaint (or petition) with the local court seeking the rest of his money.

Debbie files her answer to the complaint, and files a cross complaint as well, stating Bob severely damaged her pool, and she had to hire another individual to repair it. In her answer, Debbie states she does not owe Bob any more money because he was negligent in doing his work. In her cross complaint, Debbie asks the judge to award her the $1,200 it cost her to have the pool repaired to make it usable again. A cross complaint may also be referred to as a “counter claim.”

Landmark v Bradbury 671 N.E.2d 113 (1996)

In 1988, Landmark Health Care Associates purchased the Prairie View Nursing Home for $3 million, with $2.5 million to be paid on closing, and $250,000 plus interest to be paid in three annual installments. Before the second installment was made, a fire severely damaged the nursing home and, upon inspection, the Fire Marshall determined that nursing home’s fire doors and fire suppression sprinklers did not meet code requirements.

Because of this discovery, Landmark refused to make its 1992 annual payment, and the original owner filed a lawsuit seeking payment. Landmark, in its answer, defended its position, stating the original owner had breached the representations and warranties in the sales agreement. Landmark also filed a counter claim claiming that the original owner had breached their contract, and breached a warranty, with its failure to disclose these code defects at the time of the transaction.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Default Judgment – A binding judgment entered by a court of law against a party who has failed to answer or defend against a claim brought by another party.
  • 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.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Summons – An order or citation to appear in court, or to appear before a judge or magistrate.