Lawyers are often ridiculed for their apparent aversion to plain English. To some people, it seems like lawyers are speaking a foreign language. This overly-technical language even has a name: “legalese.”
Though many have advocated for the abolishment of legalese (including the Harvard Business Review, among other publications), there are 2 fundamental legal terms that are here to stay and it’s in your best interest to know what they mean and how they’re used.
These two words are: plaintiff and defendant.
In a civil case, the person or entity that files the lawsuit is called the plaintiff. The person or entity being sued is called the defendant.
Let’s look at an example.
John is stopped at a red light. Linda is driving behind John and texting on her cell phone. As a result, Linda doesn’t see John’s car and she rear-ends him. John is seriously injured and he files a car accident lawsuit against Linda to recover additional damages that aren’t covered by insurance. In this example, John is the plaintiff and Linda is the defendant.
Because the plaintiff files the lawsuit, the plaintiff is responsible for drafting the complaint. The “complaint” is the first document filed in court for the case. The complaint states the factual and legal basis for the plaintiff’s claim. A copy of the complaint is served to the defendant and the defendant is required to file an answer. The “answer” is simply the defendant’s response to each allegation in the complaint.
How can you distinguish the plaintiff from the defendant just by looking at a complaint or hearing a case name? The plaintiff is generally named first in the case caption and the defendant is named second.
Here’s a quick example:
Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
In the above example, “Oliver Brown” is the plaintiff and “Board of Education of Topeka” is the defendant.
If you’re involved in a lawsuit, you’re likely thinking about a million different things at once. So, how are you supposed to remember which party is the plaintiff and which is the defendant?
The word “plaintiff” comes from the Old French word “plaintive,” which means to express or suffer woe – generally an accurate description of a plaintiff!
The word “defendant” contains the word “defend,” which is exactly what a defendant is doing.
One of the critical differences between a plaintiff and defendant in a civil case is that the plaintiff is generally charged with the burden of proving the allegations.
In other words, if John sues Linda for car accident damages since she was texting and driving, it’s not up to Linda to prove that she wasn’t driving distracted. Rather, it’s John’s responsibility (or burden) to prove that Linda was in fact distracted.
There are a couple of common situations where the parties involved in a civil lawsuit are referred to something other than plaintiff and defendant.
It’s not always easy to follow along with what a lawyer is saying. A good attorney will take the time to explain legal terms so that you have a good understanding of what’s going on in your case. Read more about how to choose the right lawyer for your case.