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In a civil lawsuit, a third party complaint is a procedural motion typically brought by a defendant for the purpose of compelling a third party to become part of the suit. Usually, the defendant argues that the third party is liable for all or some of the damages that the plaintiff is seeking to recover from the defendant. A plaintiff can also bring this type of complaint. This normally occurs when the defendant has brought a counterclaim against the plaintiff, and the plaintiff asserts that a third party is responsible for all or part of any damages stemming from the counterclaim. The process of filing a third party complaint may also be referred to as an impleader.
As a general rule, courts can decide whether to allow a plaintiff or defendant to bring a third party complaint. In making this choice, the court may weigh whether adding the third party will significantly delay or complicate the lawsuit, confuse the jury, or negatively impact a party’s case. If a lower court refuses to grant the complaint, then the decision can be appealed to a higher court. Ordinarily, an appellate court will only overturn a decision if the lower court abuses its discretion.
A third party who has been brought into a suit generally has the right to defend himself. This includes raising any applicable defenses against the plaintiff as well as against the defendant. If the court finds that the third party is not liable, the third party is not required to compensate the plaintiff or defendant for any injuries.
Third party complaints most frequently surface in disputes involving insurance policies. If a driver runs a red light and hits a plaintiff, for example, the plaintiff may sue the driver to recover for any resulting damages. The driver may bring this type of complaint against his insurance company, if he has taken out an automobile insurance policy. The insurance company would then be brought into the action and required to pay all or some of the plaintiff’s damages, consistent with the driver’s insurance policy.
A third party complaint is distinct from interpleader, which is a procedure that occurs when two parties make the same claim against a third party. With an interpleader action, the court determines which one of the claimants is entitled to actually bring the claim. Like third party complaints, interpleader often comes up in the insurance context, particularly when a person dies and multiple parties claim to be the deceased's beneficiaries under an insurance policy. In this scenario, the insurance company may initiate an interpleader action so that all of the beneficiaries can litigate the matter simultaneously.
To complicate matters even further, you have actions where an insured was hurt in a car crash but the opposing driver didn't have enough cash and/or policy limits to pay the damages. The injured party, then, can even drag his own insurance company into a proceeding to recover more money.