What is a Civil Plaintiff?

Matt Brady

A civil plaintiff is the party who files a complaint in a civil lawsuit. In such cases, the plaintiff is typically one individual filing suit against an individual, corporation or government for perceived wrongdoing. The civil plaintiff seeks a redress for grievances, either in the form or money, goods, or a legal arrangement such as an injunction. This is different from a criminal case, in which the state or other local government acts as prosecutor on behalf of the victims of a crime.

Businessman with a briefcase
Businessman with a briefcase

A complaint filed by the civil plaintiff will result in a civil suit only if the dispute can be settled privately and without criminal charges. The civil plaintiff is the party doing the accusing, whereas the defendant is the party accused. The plaintiff is a private entity—an individual, private company or non-profit organization. The defendant in a civil case is typically another private entity—another individual, company or non-profit.

In some cases, a state, local or national government may be the defendant in a civil suit. Cases in which a government entity is the civil defendant are marked by disputes whereby a governmental law or procedure has possibly wronged a person or business, but not in a criminal way, nor necessarily in a way that would affect the entire population. Sometimes, however, civil suits against government entities are appealed and work their way up to higher court systems.

Depending on the country, cases can travel all the way up to a national court system on appeal, where the decision may actually end up affecting the general population. One famous example of this is a US case called Roe vs. Wade, which was a civil suit filed by Norma McCorvey—under the alias Jane Roe—against the state of Texas in 1973. McCorvey was seeking the right to get an abortion. The case traveled all the way up to the United States Supreme Court on appeal. The Supreme Court's decision in favor of Roe established a national precedent that granted all women the right to seek out an abortion.

A public government can also at times be a civil plaintiff. If, for instance, a newspaper has sensitive material that the government doesn't wish to be published, the government may file a civil suit in an attempt to win a temporary injunction. In this case, the government must file a civil suit; a criminal suit would be inappropriate as the paper is doing nothing criminal by publishing materials. It is then up to the judge or jury presiding over the case to decide whether the government has just cause to delay publishing.

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