The person, company, or government that brings a lawsuit or defends against one is called a “party.” A party has a claim (you might also hear “cause of action”) if it has some legal basis for seeking relief from a court for the actions of another party. In a civil case, the cause of action usually arises from:
- A common-law tort, where the defendant has allegedly failed to behave toward the plaintiff in a way the common law expects.
- A contract, where the parties in the case had an agreement that the defendant allegedly breached or with which the defendant failed to comply.
- A statute that gives the plaintiff a right against the defendant.
In a civil case, the party seeking relief from the court is the plaintiff, and the party against which the plaintiff seeks a judgment is the defendant. In a criminal case, the party seeking the court’s action is the government (usually in the person of a prosecuting attorney), and the other party is still the defendant. Criminal cases arise from the defendant’s alleged violation of a statute or agency rule. The relief sought by plaintiffs in civil cases is either money damages (sometimes called remedies at law), or court orders or injunctions (sometimes called remedies at equity), or both. The relief sought by the state in a criminal case is imprisonment of the defendant, or payment of a criminal fine, or both.
- Plaintiff (almost always present). The party that initiates the suit and makes the initial claims. There can be more than one plaintiff.
- Defendant (almost always present). The party against which the plaintiff seeks relief. There can be more than one defendant.
- Counterclaim plaintiff and defendant (optional). The defendant sometimes makes claims against the plaintiff arising from the same transaction or occurrence giving rise to the plaintiff’s claims. So for example, if the plaintiff says the defendant breached a contract, the defendant (as counterclaim plaintiff) may accuse the plaintiff (now also a counterclaim defendant) of breaching it, too, and seek remedies of its own.
- Third-party plaintiff and defendant (optional). Sometimes, the defendant in a case will seek to bring in a third party involved in the same transaction or occurrence that is the source of the claim against the defendant. For example, if the plaintiff says the defendant breached a contract between them, the defendant might argue that a third party interfered in the contract. The defendant then becomes a third-party plaintiff and the third party becomes the third-party defendant.
- Other parties. Sometimes there is not a plaintiff or defendant; the plaintiff is bringing the case on behalf of a minor child or other person incapable of acting in court on her own; or the court is adjudicating the estate of someone who has died. Sometimes an insurance company will be listed as a party when its customer sues or is sued. At other times, there is an intervenor or interpleader. In these cases, the caption may indicate the lack of a plaintiff by having a case name like In the Matter of Paper Antitrust Litigation, or In re Estate of Miller. (“In re” is just Latin for “In the matter of.”) We’ll discuss who those parties are when we find them.
This figure illustrates a quite-simple suit where there are three parties, a plaintiff (who is also a counterclaim defendant), a defendant (who is also a counterclaim and third-party plaintiff), and a third-party defendant.
As long as any of the claims made by any of the parties has not been disposed of, the lawsuit is still alive; the plaintiff cannot get out of the counterclaims, for example, merely by dropping its claims against the defendant.