What Is a Plaintiff?

Jodee Redmond

On a very basic level, a plaintiff is any person or entity who initiates or files a lawsuit. In most legal cases there are two primary parties. The plaintiff, sometimes also called a claimant, is the one who brings the case, and the defendant is the party against whom it is brought. These names are also usually consistent with the roles of prosecution and defense. In nearly all cases, people must actively choose to file a claim, or else intentionally join a group of joint claimants; in a sense, then, the role is voluntary. Sometimes governments and other public organizations will also initiate cases. Depending on the nature of the claim, it may be possible for the parties to settle their dispute out of court. If things progress to trial, the prosecution usually has a defined list of responsibilities when it comes to presenting an argument and providing evidence. Most legal systems allow parties to represent themselves, but most people, particularly in complicated cases, choose to hire attorneys. Most trial lawyers are specially trained in the needed nuances of filing papers, presenting files, and negotiating favorable outcomes. Many community legal groups and bar associations can provide references to people who may be interested in filing claims or bringing cases with the help of a skilled representative.

The plaintiff is the one claiming wrongdoing in a civil suit.
The plaintiff is the one claiming wrongdoing in a civil suit.

Understanding Parties to a Lawsuit Generally

Most legal disputes have two main sides: one that claims to have been inured or damaged, and another who is alleged to be the cause. In the simplest cases, each side is represented by a single party. More often there are many different people, companies, and groups involved, which can make things more complicated. Even still, there is usually just one lawyer or attorney who serves as the primary representative for each, which can streamline negotiations and courtroom proceedings.

An attorney provides appropriate legal advice and attempts to negotiate the best possible settlement of the legal dispute for his or her client.
An attorney provides appropriate legal advice and attempts to negotiate the best possible settlement of the legal dispute for his or her client.

In most places, legal actions begin when one party files a formal complaint and petitions the court to hear the dispute. Almost by default, the person filing then becomes the plaintiff. Of course, simply filling out paperwork doesn’t guarantee a trial; the court usually must decide whether or not to hear a case, based on things like overall merit and whether all filing requirements have been met. It’s also possible that the person against whom complaints are made can counter-sue, which is basically to make allegations back. In this scenario, it is theoretically possible for one party to be both a plaintiff and a defendant simultaneously in closely related cases.

Plaintiffs typically seek compensation for personal injuries.
Plaintiffs typically seek compensation for personal injuries.

Different Examples and Settings

There are many different examples of how people can assume these party roles, but a common one arises when someone has been injured in a motor vehicle accident. If the injured party lives in a jurisdiction where he or she has the right to sue, he or she may be able to bring an action to receive a monetary payment from the driver or an involved insurance company to compensate for lost wages and medical expenses. The injured person may also be entitled to a payment for pain and suffering, though this usually has to be proved pretty specifically.

A person may also become a claimant when he or she is seeking compensation for personal injuries caused by faulty products or medical malpractice. In addition, actions may be started to recover unpaid debts or in cases of alleged fraud. Family members might seek damages in a case of wrongful death, too.

Basic Requirements

Different jurisdictions have different rules when it comes to the process of beginning a lawsuit. When a person feels that he or she has been wronged and is looking for compensation, it is usually wise to consult an attorney. These trained legal specialists work on behalf of clients to recover monetary damages. The attorney provides appropriate legal advice and attempts to negotiate the best possible settlement of the legal dispute for his or her client.

The attorney will prepare legal documents that set out the basic claim against the other party or parties. He or she will also arrange to have the papers served so that those being sued are aware of the claim being made. It's not usually enough for the wronged party to make allegations that they have suffered a loss. He or she must also have evidence to support the claim being made, and also usually has to follow a number of often very specific administrative rules.

During Trial

Settlement is usually regarded as the best possible solution, since it forces the parties to come to a mutual agreement and avoids the stress, time, and expense of a courtroom appearance. When entered into properly, settlements are usually just as binding as a judge’s ruling.

In cases where it isn't possible to settle the claim without going to court, the claimant or his or her attorney typically takes charge of the proceedings. With very few exceptions the claimant’s side presents first, after which time the other party is given the opportunity to present a rebuttal or defense. If the judge determines that the wronged party is entitled to damages, he or she will enter a judgment for the plaintiff. Otherwise, the judge rules in favor of the defense.

Someone injured at a work site is a plaintiff if they decide to file suit against their employer.
Someone injured at a work site is a plaintiff if they decide to file suit against their employer.

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Discussion Comments


As a non lawyer, I have to ask who wrote the article? Hopefully not a lawyer as in "a plaintiff is someone who has been harmed in some way and is seeking compensation". I would guess that a more accurate description of a plaintiff is someone who initiates or proposes a lawsuit and is alleging that they have been harmed in some way. They go on to say that harm is defined by either financial or physical loss.

I think they have forgotten that emotional trauma and damage also often receives compensatory settlements. Just because you have a law degree does not correlate to good, competent legal representation and although I would agree that most should not defend themselves, I have personally met and talked to some lawyers who make me feel more confident defending myself rather than them defending me.


Anytime I hear someone representing themself in a civil case and seeking damages from someone I roll my eyes. The average person cannot comprehend the legal system to the point that they would expect to prove that someone is guilty except in rare instances.

Anyone seeking damages from someone needs to consult an attorney that specializes in the type of case. Usually these do not even go to trial and instead are settled outside of court. If someone is seeking damages from someone they need to go this route and consult an attorney. Simply having legal representation will usually be enough to settle the case instead of actually going to trial.


@cardsfan27 - you are completely right. I have seen people represent themselves in cases and it becomes comical sometimes. I once saw one guy represent himself in a criminal case and you could almost play a type of drinking game with how many times I heard the word "object" from the prosecution or how many times he did something awkward that no lawyer, no matter how bad, would ever do.

The legal system is very complicated and very difficult for an average person to understand. Simply reading up on the legal system will not prepare anyone to represent themselves in a courtroom especially when they are the plaintiff, seeking damages, where they have to prove that the defendant is guilty and liable beyond a reasonable doubt.


Most people do not understand how difficult it is to represent yourself in a trial of any form. You can tell right away when seeing someone represent themself the differences between an educated lawyer and someone who has simply read up on law. That is why it is always important to hire a lawyer that is knowledgeable about the legal system and specifies in the type of case that the client will be participating in.


The United States Judicial system is based upon the assumption that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. That is why it is important for someone seeking damages to consult a plaintiff lawyer, who will make all the arrangements and also make sure that they have appropriate representation for their case.

Without a plaintiff lawyer, the plaintiff may have very bad representation or even have to represent themself, which then turns into a he said she said type of trial that will go nowhere.

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