Parties in a Lawsuit

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“Parties” in a lawsuit are the people or organizations (such as businesses or nonprofit groups) in whose names a case is brought.

  • In criminal cases, one party is the government, called the state, commonwealth, or the people of the United States, and the other party is the defendant.
  • In general civil cases, the party who brings a lawsuit is called the plaintiff, and the party against whom the case was brought is called the defendant.
  • In family law cases, the party who starts the lawsuit is called the petitioner, and the party against whom the case was brought is called the respondent.

Many other names for types of parties exist, depending on the court and its jurisdiction. Using special names for types of parties allows everyone to immediately understand the basic status of each party to the lawsuit.

  • Parties who represent themselves in court cases without the assistance of a lawyer are called “pro pers.” Pro per is Latin (pro persona) for “on one’s own behalf.” (Some places use the term “pro se” – Latin for “for oneself.” In the court system these two terms mean the same thing.)

“Legal entities” that can be parties:

Only an “actual legal entity” may start a lawsuit.

  • A “natural person” is a legal entity – and any number of people can be parties on either side of a lawsuit.
  • A corporation is a legal entity. It comprises a single entity which can be identified as one for the purposes of the law.
  • A business partnership, non-profit organization, group of citizens or others can be parties in a lawsuit if the court accepts its name as representing one side of the dispute.
  • The government may be treated as if it were a private party in a lawsuit, as a plaintiff or defendant in a civil case.
  • In a class action lawsuit, thousands and even millions of persons can be parties. To get a class action designation, the plaintiffs must convince the court that many people possess similar interests in the subject matter of the lawsuit.

“Legal entities” with restricted rights to be parties:

A person must have the “legal capacity” to be a party to a lawsuit.

  • A child under the age of 18 years has what is called a “legal disability” – limited civil and social rights under the law.
  • Mentally ill persons, mentally retarded persons, and people who are judged mentally incompetent because of illness, age, or infirmity also may have legal disability.
NOTE: Legal disability does not mean that people in these categories are removed from civil cases. The claims or defenses of such a person usually can be asserted by a legal representative, such as a parent, guardian, trustee, or executor.
  • Prisoners also have limited rights as parties to civil cases.

“Joinder” of additional parties in civil cases:

After the start of a lawsuit, the plaintiff may wish to join, or add, other parties to the lawsuit. Usually this is permissible, but it is not a legal right. It is up to the judge to decide if it makes sense to join additional parties in this case at this time.

  • Generally, joinder is approved when the claims of the people seeing to be joined arose out of the same transaction or event as the claims of the existing parties, so that all the claims may be settled by answering the same questions of law or fact.
  • A person whose interest may be affected by the outcome of the case is considered “necessary,” and such a person should be joined if possible.
  • A person whose interest is sure to be affected by the outcome of the lawsuit is considered an “indispensable party,” and the case cannot proceed without this person.

“Impleader” (a third-party defendant) in civil cases:

A defendant who feels that the plaintiff in a lawsuit should have sued someone else can ask to bring that other person into the case. Again, it is not a legal right. It is up to the judge to decide if it makes sense to implead an additional party in this case at this time.

For example, a restaurant patron who becomes ill after eating a fish dinner can sue the restaurant. The patron is the plaintiff, and the restaurant is the defendant. But the restaurant may want to implead the fish-pacing company that furnished the fish, if it believes that the fish was tainted before it was delivered to the restaurant. The restaurant cannot avoid being a defendant, but it can cover itself by impleading the fish packer and making that company a third-party defendant.

“Intervention” in civil cases:

A person can volunteer to become a party in a lawsuit if he or she has an interest that will be affected by the outcome of the case, and he or she believes that this interest will not be adequately protected by the other parties. This process is called “intervention.”

  • The intervenor sometimes joins the plaintiff in claiming what is sought, sometimes joins the defendant in resisting what is sought, and sometimes takes a position adverse to both the plaintiff and the defendant.
  • A court decides whether to permit an intervening party by balancing the interests of the person seeking to intervene with the additional burden imposed on the existing parties if the person is allowed to enter the lawsuit.




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