In a court case, the plaintiff is the person who starts a lawsuit, usually by filing a complaint or similar legal petition in the court. Starting a lawsuit may also be called “bringing an action,” and the person who brings it is automatically labeled the plaintiff. The person or company the plaintiff files the lawsuit against is known as the defendant.
A case may have multiple plaintiffs or only one. A case with an unusually large number of plaintiffs may be filed as a class action, with a few individual plaintiffs “standing in” for the entire class of plaintiffs for the purposes of trial. These plaintiffs may also be called “named plaintiffs.”
A plaintiff generally brings an action because he feels that he has been wronged somehow by the defendant and wants the court to look at the evidence and, hopefully, find in the plaintiff’s favor. The term “plaintiff” is most often used in civil law cases, such as personal injury cases, where the plaintiff is seeking compensation in the form of money damages or an injunction. Torts cases that involve personal injury or property damage and cases for breach of contract make up most of the cases in which plaintiffs appear.
A plaintiff becomes a plaintiff by filing a claim against one or more defendants and, in most states, by serving a summons and a copy of the complaint on each of the defendants. The defendants then have a limited amount of time to respond to the complaint by filing an answer or a motion to dismiss. If an answer is filed, the plaintiff and defendant proceed to the discovery phase of the process.
If the defendant files a motion to dismiss, however, the plaintiff gets an opportunity to submit a written response to the arguments the defendant makes in the motion to dismiss. The motion then may be set for a hearing, or the court may rule on the motion without a hearing. If the defendant’s motion is granted, the case is dismissed and the plaintiff is out of luck unless he is able to file the case again in a way that corrects whatever problem existed in order for the court to dismiss the case in the first place.
Although there are several problems for which a motion to dismiss might be granted, the one that trips up many plaintiffs is waiting too long after the injury has occurred to file the case. Most types of civil cases, including negligence cases and professional malpractice cases, have a built-in deadline known as the statute of limitations. This deadline is usually 1-3 years after the injury occurs, although the amount of time depends on specific laws that apply to the case.
If a plaintiff files a complaint before the statute of limitations runs out, the case may proceed as long as no other problems arise. If the plaintiff does not file until after the statute of limitations deadline has passed, however, the case can be dismissed from court and the plaintiff will be prevented from filing it again.
In criminal cases in the United States, the person who brings the action is usually the prosecutor, who is employed by the state to handle criminal cases. In these cases, the prosecutor is typically called “the prosecutor,” but the defendant—that is, the person against whom the case is brought—is still known as the “defendant.”