What is “standing”?

In law, “standing” is the legal right to bring a lawsuit to court. Usually, it requires that the plaintiff, or the person who brings the case, has either been affected by the events in the case or will be imminently affected or harmed if the court does not address the problem. Standing is also affected by state or federal laws that apply to the events in the case, since some laws do not allow injured plaintiffs to sue certain defendants even if the plaintiff can demonstrate that she was injured by the defendant’s actions.

In personal injury, products liability, and similar torts cases, a plaintiff who has been injured almost always has standing to sue the person or company the plaintiff believes is responsible for her injuries. Depending on the circumstances of the case, these people might include individuals, manufacturers of defective products, businesses that did not fix hazards on their premises, and/or others.

A plaintiff usually demonstrates that she has standing by including the following elements in her Complaint, which is the document that opens a lawsuit in court and gives the defendant some idea of what he’s being sued for. In order to show standing, most courts require the plaintiff to mention the following three things in the Complaint:

  • Injury: The plaintiff must show either that she has been injured in a particular way or will be injured in a particular way if the court does not act to prevent it (this is the basis of many requests for injunctions). The injury can be physical, mental/emotional, financial, or an injury to one of the plaintiff’s civil rights, as long as it is a specific injury.
  • Causation: The plaintiff must show there’s some connection between the injury and the defendant’s actions or planned actions.  In a Complaint, causation is usually shown by a single sentence linking the defendant’s acts to the plaintiff’s injury.  Complicated questions involving cause in fact or proximate cause are usually saved for trial.
  • Addressability: The situation has to be one the court can fix in some way, whether it’s by issuing an injunction, ordering the defendant to pay damages, or by some other particular method.

In order to keep lawsuits focused on a plaintiff who was actually injured and a defendant who may be responsible, U.S. courts have, over the years, limited the kinds of cases a plaintiff has standing to bring. Currently, a plaintiff does not have standing if any of the following are true:

  • The plaintiff is a third party who was not injured herself, but is suing on behalf of someone who was injured. Exceptions to this rule include parents who sue on behalf of their injured children and legally-appointed guardians who sue on behalf of their wards. Courts have also allowed organizations to sue on behalf of their members in a few cases where it was obvious that all the members faced the same injury.
  • The plaintiff tries to sue on behalf of some large, unidentified group who may or may not be injured. Often called “taxpayer standing,” this rule prevents cases in which one plaintiff attempts to sue the government on the grounds that the plaintiff, a taxpayer, doesn’t like what the government is doing with tax revenues. So far, the only exception to this rule has been certain cases brought under the First Amendment Establishment Clause to prevent the government from funneling taxpayer dollars to particular religious institutions.
  • The plaintiff is not in the “zone of interest” or “zone of injury.” In other words, the plaintiff is not the kind of person a particular law was designed to protect, and/or the plaintiff is not the kind of person that lawmakers expected to be injured if they did not enact the law. For instance, a plaintiff who has severe dog allergies does not have standing to sue a dog owner for failing to license her dog, since “severe allergy attacks” were not the kind of injury the dog license law was designed to prevent, and “people with severe dog allergies” were not the kind of people the law is designed to protect. (A severe allergy sufferer may, however, have standing to sue a neighbor dog owner for nuisance or even assault if, for instance, the neighbor encourages the dog to approach the allergic plaintiff even though the neighbor knows this will make the plaintiff very ill and might even cause death.)

Each U.S. state also has its own standing laws, and some of these differ from federal standing requirements. For instance, California law equates standing with cause of action requirements and does not ask whether redressability exists.

A defendant who objects to a lawsuit because the plaintiff lacks standing will usually bring this up either in the affirmative defenses section of his Answer or in a separate motion to dismiss. If the court agrees that the plaintiff has no standing, it will usually dismiss the case. The plaintiff will have to re-file the case if she is able to show standing at a later time or under another law or regulation.

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