Plaintiff is the term used to describe a party who initiates a court action, whether a lawsuit in civil court, or charges in criminal court, in order to seek a legal remedy. The party responding to the lawsuit, or the person being charged with a crime, is known as the Defendant. In criminal court proceedings, the plaintiff can refer to the prosecuting attorney or the state seeking charges. In some cases, the plaintiff is known as the “Petitioner,” and the defendant is known as the “Respondent.”  To explore this concept, consider the following plaintiff definition.

Definition of Plaintiff


  1. A person who brings a civil or criminal action against another person or entity.


1350-1400   Middle English plaintif

Types of Civil Lawsuits

The type of lawsuit that a plaintiff files varies greatly depending on the wrongdoing that took place. Some of the most common types of civil disputes heard in court include:

Requirements for Filing a Lawsuit

In both civil and criminal proceedings, the action begins when the Plaintiff files a Summons and Complaint against the Defendant. These documents, along with all other documents filed with the court in the course of a lawsuit or criminal trial are referred to as “pleadings.” The Complaint outlines the civil or criminal wrongs that the Defendant is accused of committing, and tells the court what relief the Plaintiff desires. Such “relief” may include an award of money damages in a civil lawsuit, or jail time in a criminal trial.

Because civil lawsuits can be very costly and time consuming for all parties involved, the courts strongly recommend the parties attempt to solve the issue by any other means, such as mediation, before filing a lawsuit. In each jurisdiction there are certain requirements that must be met before an individual may file a lawsuit in civil court:

  • The individual must be over the age of 18, or the lawsuit filed and handled by a legal guardian
  • The individual must have the mental capacity to engage in a lawsuit
  • The individual must have legal standing to use. This means he must have suffered a loss due to the acts of the Defendant
  • The lawsuit must be filed within the statute of limitations

Process of a Lawsuit

When filing a lawsuit, the Plaintiff must fill out all of the necessary forms and file them with the court. Each jurisdiction has specific requirements for how the forms and pleadings show be formatted, filed, and served to the Defendant. There is generally a filing fee that must be paid when the documents are initially filed. In many cases, the date of the initial hearing in the lawsuit will be stamped on these documents when filed.

The lawsuit does not officially begin until the Defendant has been served copies of these documents by a licensed process server or other person qualified to make personal service. The Plaintiff may have another person who is over the age of 18, and not related in any way to the case, serve the documents. In this case, a document called a “Proof of Service” must be signed and filed with the court.

Once the Defendant has been served, he has a limited amount of time to file an answer to the Complaint, which is filed with the court and served on the Plaintiff, usually by mail. Both parties have the right to request a jury trial, as opposed to a bench trial, which is heard and decided by the judge. If the Defendant fails to answer in the statutory time limit, the court may award a “default judgment” to the Plaintiff.

If the Defendant answers the Complaint on time, both parties gather information such as witnesses, documents, and other evidence to be presented at trial. After all evidence has been presented, the jury or judge makes a decision on the case, and rules in favor of either the Plaintiff or Defendant. The judge specifies the award to the party who has won the case.

After the jury or judge has made a ruling on the case, the losing party may have the right to file for an appeal if he believes that a legal error was made during the trial. There is a set amount of time for an appeal to be filed once the ruling has been made.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appeal – applying to a higher court to review the lower court’s decision in the hope it will be reversed.
  • Bench Trial – a trial in which a judge hears the case as opposed to jury
  • Civil Suit – when a party sues another for a civil wrong, such as breach of contract.
  • Default Judgment – when a judge rules in favor of the Plaintiff or the Defendant when the other party fails to take action or to appear in court
  • Pro Se when a Plaintiff or Defendant decides to represent himself without the help of a lawyer during a court case