What is a petitioner?

In a civil law appeal, the “petitioner” is the person who files a petition to appeal with the state or federal court that will hear the appeal.  The petitioner on appeal may be either the plaintiff or the defendant at trial.  Some courts also use the words “appellant,” “pursuer,” or “plaintiff in error” to refer to the petitioner.  When one party to a case becomes the petitioner, the opposing party becomes the respondent.

The petitioner typically begins the appeals process by filing a petition for leave to appeal with either the trial court, the appeals court, or both, depending on the rules used by the courts hearing the case.  If the petition is granted, the petitioner then files an appellate brief, which lays out the arguments she wants to make on appeal.  Once the appellate brief is filed, the respondent has a limited amount of time to file a response, in which the respondent argues on behalf of his side of the case and refutes any arguments the petitioner made in her brief.  In some courts, the petitioner is allowed to file a short reply after the response is filed.  The reply addresses any new arguments the respondent brought up.

The appellate brief, response, and reply must all be based on the trial record, which includes transcripts of testimony and any evidence presented during trial.  When a petitioner seeks to appeal a case, she is generally barred in most courts from bringing up new facts or inserting new evidence that the trial court did not get a chance to see.  However, an exception may be made for evidence that was not available when the trial took place and that makes a significant difference to the petitioner’s case.

In most appeals, however, the petitioner argues that the law was incorrectly applied in some way.  For instance, the petitioner may argue that the law was too vague to be understood clearly, or that no reasonable jury could have come to the conclusions the jury did in this case, or that the jury contradicted its own verdict by including inconsistent information on the verdict forms. As a rule, appeals courts deal with issues of law, and will not change a ruling based on new or different facts.  However, the appeals court might send a case back for a new trial in the trial court, if it appears that new evidence will make a significant difference to how the case is decided.

The petitioner in an appeals case may be either the plaintiff or the defendant during trial.  A plaintiff might become a petitioner if she believes that the law was applied incorrectly so that she lost her case, or if she won the case but believes that the damages amount is calculated incorrectly.  Likewise, a defendant might become a petitioner if he believes he was improperly held liable for a tort he did not commit, or if he believes the damages award is too high or that it includes punitive damages when the law prohibits courts or juries from imposing punitive damages in cases like the defendant’s case.

Which party decides to become the petitioner on appeal and for what reasons depends on the facts of the case.  In some cases, both the plaintiff and the defendant at trial have an issue they want the court to address.  In these cases, the first one to file an appeal is usually known as the petitioner, while the second one to file is known as the cross-petitioner.

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