Civil Court Vocabulary

Katelynn May


A plaintiff is any person or party who sues or files a lawsuit against another person or accuses another person of a crime in court. An example of this could be a landowner filing charges because the renter would not pay their rent after several notices of overdue payment.


The defendant is the person that the plaintiff is accusing or suing. This can be an individual, a company or an institution. An example of an individual defendant could be a hunter being accused of trespassing on private property. An example of a company defendant could be GM being sued for the new accusations of defects in their vehicles and no immediate action was taken on their part to recall defective vehicles. There were several cases of injury because of this, which could cause them to be sued making them the defendant.


A complaint is what starts a case. It is the plaintiff's cause of action and a formal notice that a lawsuit has been started. A complaint has to contain all the plaintiff's reasons for filing the suit, and it must also state what the plaintiff is requesting from the defendant such as money. An example of this could be a person files a complaint on his neighbor because he allegedly stole some tools from the plaintiff's shed. The complaint must list all the tools stolen and what the plaintiff would like for compensation. The defendant is required to answer the the complaint. Normally the complaint's answer is defenses and denials.


A summon is a notice demanding a defendant attend court to answer to a complaint or charge. The defendant receives this notice normally in the mail. If the defendant fails to respond to the summon, additional charges can be filed by the court as "failure to appear in court". An empty form for a summon has been embedded below.


A pleading is a combination of the complaint and the answer. The plaintiff states his complaint and the defendant states his defenses. Pleadings are significant because they give a clear notice to the defendant that a lawsuit has been filed against them and the reasons for it. It also gives notice to the plaintiff regarding the defendant's intentions of the lawsuit. It basically states both sides of the argument clearly. An example would be the landowner saying the hunter trespassed on his land, as the complaint. The hunter would respond with an answer like a clear "Do Not Trespass" sign was not posted where it could be seen.


A mediation is a situation in which an unbiased third party steps into the middle of the lawsuit and helps the plaintiff and the defendant reach an agreement. A good way to remember it is mediation sounds like median, which means middle. The mediator steps in the middle. This is a less formal setting and is more of a suggestion than a final decision. In the trespassing hunter situation, a mediation may suggest the hunter has to stay off the landowners property and the landowner has to post more "No Trespassing" signs throughout his property.


Arbitration is similar to mediation. In this situation, a third party, preferably a judge, listens to both sides of the argument, reviews the case and makes a final decision that is contractual to both the plaintiff and the defendant. It is a commonly used way to end disputes.


In a trial both the plaintiff and the defendant are given an opportunity to argue their side of the case. The plaintiff tries to get the jury and judge on their side by giving evidence. The defendant then tries to counteract the plaintiff's attempt and provides evidence of their own. The judge or jury then decides if the defendant is liable to any of the accusations and the punishments or fines for it.


The verdict of a case is the final decision made by the judge or jury. In civil court cases, the jury or judge votes in favor of either the plaintiff or the defendant. After the decision is made, the liability is determined. In the hunter and landowner case, if the landlord can prove he has "No Trespassing" signs posted clearly on his property, the verdict may be that the hunter was guilty of trespassing.


If the losing party thinks the verdict of the case was incorrect they can apply for appeal which requests review of the case by a higher level court. In the hunter and landowner case, the hunter was proven to have trespassed on the landowner's property. The hunter can appeal the case because he did not see a clear posted "Do Not Trespass" sign. He may want to prove they are not posted thoroughly.

Pretrial Conference

A conference where the parties meet before the trial is begun. The conference occurs in the presence of the judge. It can be requested by one or both of the parties or it may be ordered by the court. It is a way to prepare for the actual trial.

Preponderance of Evidence

When a plaintiff files a complaint, they have to provide proof of what they are accusing. This is called preponderance of evidence. A court can not go off the word of the plaintiff, there needs to be proof or evidence. A defendant can present a counterclaim which the plaintiff has to prove. In the hunter and landowner case, the landowner may use the land to hunt privately. He can prove the hunter trespassed because he may have cameras posted on trees to watch the pattern of deer. The landowner can prove the hunter trespassed with the pictures from the cameras. The hunter may provide a counterclaim that there were no posted signs. The landowner could then prove the counterclaim incorrect by providing a map with the locations of all the signs.