Plaintiff vs. Defendant – Learn the difference

Plaintiff and defendant in civil actions

Civil actions typically refer to disputes between individuals for the determination of legal rights or obligations. Such actions are usually aimed at providing a remedy in the form of compensation or restitution.

Simply put, a plaintiff is a person or entity who brings an action against another in a court of law. A plaintiff may bring an action to seek a legal remedy, enforce a legal right duty, or seek an injunction. The party who is being sued is referred to as the defendant. Thus, parties to a civil suit are usually designated as “plaintiff” and “defendant”. As we will see below, the case is a bit different in criminal matters.

For example, if Mr. Y, who was driving recklessly, damaged Mrs. X’s brand-new car in an auto accident. Mrs. X may decide to sue Mr. Y in order to claim compensation for personal injury and damage to her car (or the cost of replacement). In the suit, Mrs. X will be designated as the plaintiff and Mr. Y as the defendant. The case, if filed, may be written as X v. Y.

Therefore, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 U.S. 483 (1954), “Brown” is the plaintiff, while “Board of Education of Topeka” is the defendant.

A country or state as a party to a civil action

A country or state may be a plaintiff or defendant in civil matters too. For instance, a person may bring an action against the United States for wrongful levy of federal taxes. There have been cases where the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice has represented the United States or its agencies in civil proceedings, whether as plaintiff or defendant.

In the case of United States v. Facebook, Inc., for instance, the United States brought an action against Facebook for alleged violation of the FTC Act. Thus, the plaintiff in the case is the United States, and the defendant is Facebook, Inc.

Plaintiff and defendant in criminal prosecution

Criminal prosecution is the reverse of civil suits. They are usually offenses committed against a country or state. They involve the violation of penal laws or criminal provisions in statutes and are usually brought by the government.

Generally, criminal actions are aimed at punishing wrongdoing, usually by imposing fines or jail term on the accused, if found guilty.

In a criminal case, the prosecutor will be the “plaintiff” who will bring the action on behalf of the “complainant”. The complainant is the victim who has been wronged, such a person will not be a party to the suit. The term “defendant” means a person who has been accused of committing a crime.

The state is usually a nominal plaintiff in criminal cases. In other words, the United States of America, or the relevant state where the crime was committed (e.g. Texas) will be the plaintiff, depending on whether a federal or state law was violated. In other words, it is the government who will bring criminal charges against the defendant in criminal prosecution.  The United States Attorney Office usually prosecutes persons charged with a federal crime. While the State Attorney’s office (district attorney) is charged with the prosecution of a person who has committed a state crime.

The case of United States v. Jones 565 U.S. 400 (2012) is a criminal case that was ultimately decided by the United States Supreme Court. Here, “United States” is the “Plaintiff” and “Jones” is the “Defendant”.

Filing both civil and criminal suits

There are cases where a defendant may be liable in both civil and criminal law. In such an instance, two different suits may be filed against the defendant. For example, where a person was assaulted, the accused person will be charged with a criminal offense, and a civil suit may be filed against him to recover compensation for the victim or their family members (in the event of death).

Plaintiff and defendant in arbitration proceedings

Sometimes, the term “plaintiff” is used interchangeably with “claimant”. They mean the same thing; however, in the United States, claimant is usually used in quasi-judicial or extrajudicial settings such as administrative or arbitration proceedings where parties are not before a formally constituted court.  Thus, in an arbitration proceeding, the party who brings the arbitration is usually referred to as the “Arbitration claimant” or “Petitioner”; while the person against who the arbitration is brought is designated  as “Arbitration respondent” or “Defendant”.

Other variations of plaintiff and defendant

Petitioner versus respondent or appellant versus appellee

Where a party is not satisfied with the judgment of the court, such person or entity may appeal to a superior court. Although, it is important to note that the right of appeal is not automatic, there are certain legal requirements.

At the appeal stage, the party who appeals to superior court (which may originally have been either the plaintiff or the defendant) is called the “petitioner” or “appellant”, while the other party to the appeal is called the “respondent” or “appellee”.

In Joseph Schwarz v. United States of America, 384 F.2d 833 (2d Cir. 1967), a case decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Joseph Schwarz was designated as the “Plaintiff-appellant” in the judgment, while the United States of America was designated as the “Defendant-appellee”. What this means is that Joseph Schwarz who originally instituted the action at the lower court was not satisfied with the lower court’s decision, and therefore appealed to a superior court.

Thus, assuming it was the United States of America who was not pleased with the lower court’s decision and therefore appealed to the Court of Appeal, the parties at the appeal stage will be designated as: United States of America (as “Defendant-appellant”) and Joseph Schwarz (as “Plaintiff-appellee”).

Counter-plaintiff” versus “Counter-respondent”

When a plaintiff institutes an action against a defendant, the defendant may also have his own claim(s) against the plaintiff. In such a situation, the defendant will file a “counterclaim” and will be designated as “counter-claimant”, while the plaintiff will be designated as “counter-respondent”, but only for the purposes of the counterclaim.

Simply put, a counterclaim is a claim by the defendant against the plaintiff, the defendant therein will make his own claims against the plaintiff, who will then be required to defend the defendant’s allegations.

Plaintiff in a representative action

A representative action is one where the law allows another person to bring an action on behalf of a victim. A representative action may be brought because the victim lacks the legal capacity to institute a suit. Such a victim who may be a minor or an incompetent person will be named as a plaintiff but represented by another party. A minor is a person who is below the recognized adult age in a state or country. The age varies usually from 16 to 21 but is mostly 18. While an “incompetent person” (usually so adjudged by a court) is someone who lacks the legal ability to do certain acts, for instance, a person is who is mentally incapacitated, infirm, or senile person.

Defendant in a representative action

In a similar vein, a case may be defended in a representative capacity where the defendant falls under any of the categories identified above. Representatives who may sue or defend an action on behalf of a minor or an incompetent person include general guardians, a committee, a conservator, or a like fiduciary.

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a minor or an incompetent person who does not have a duly appointed representative may sue by a “next friend” or a “guardian ad litem”. The terms “next friend” and “guardian ad litem” are of common law origin and they are used to describe individuals who act on behalf of another person who lacks the legal capacity to act on his own.

Plaintiff and defendant in class actions

According to Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, one or more members of a class may sue or be sued as representative parties on behalf of all members.

Thus, a class action is a form of representative action where one or more plaintiffs are confirmed by the court, to file an action on behalf of a group of people with similar claims. In order to validly institute a class action, certain legal requirements must be met.

In filing a class action, the person(s) representing the class are usually known as the lead or named plaintiff(s) and will be described as “plaintiff” in the suit. Although not very common, defendants may also defend a suit as a class. In such a situation, the named defendants will represent the defendant class.

Class actions are common in pension disputes, securities litigation, consumer protection claims, employee-related matters, etc.

Other plaintiffs

Where the law authorizes, certain persons or entities may bring an action on behalf of another. Such actions will be brought in their own names and not in the name of the beneficiary. This is usually different from the representative or class actions described above.

Persons who may bring an action in their own names but for the benefit of another include:

  • trustees of an express trust
  • executors
  • administrators
  • guardians
  • bailee
  • a person authorized to bring an action pursuant to a specific law

Also, a public officer who institutes or defends an action in his official capacity may be designated by his official title rather than by his name. Although, the court can order that the name be added.

Finally, where the law permits, an action may be brought for the benefit of another person in the name of the United States.