Difference between Plaintiff, Petitioner, Appellant, Respondent and Defendant.

Author : Apeksha Dhoka

As a coin has two sides, similarly there are two parties in a case brought up in a court. These parties have been named differently from case to case basis.

In civil cases, a plaintiff is the person or group of persons who is accusing another person or group of persons for some wrongdoing and a defendant is a person against whom an action is brought by the plaintiff.

Further a Petitioner is a person who files a petition [1] in the higher court who has lost in the lower court. A petitioner can be a plaintiff or defendant in lower court as either of the parties can present the case to a higher court for further proceedings. The person against whom a petition is filed by the petitioner in higher court is known as the Respondent. Respondent can be either the plaintiff or defendant from the lower court.

Whereas an Appellant is a person who makes an appeal [2] to a higher court, he is the one who is not satisfied by the decision of the lower court. Appellant can be either the plaintiff or defendant who is not satisfied with decision made by the lower court.

The person who is named in the appeal and who responds to appellant’s claims of fault in the underlying decision of the lower court is known as Respondent or Appellee.

As we now have an idea of what the above terms mean we will further study them in detail.

Plaintiff is a word which is derived from a French word “Plaintive” which means to express one’s suffering or woe. Plaintiff is the person who sues the defendant for the damages suffered by him. He is the person or entity who files the lawsuit. As the plaintiff files the lawsuit he is responsible for filing a complaint in the court, this complaint contains the factual and legal basis for the plaintiff’s claim. After the complaint is filed by the plaintiff it is the responsibility of defendant to file an answer for the said complaint.

The word defendant contains the word defend which basically means to forbid so defendant has to defend himself in the court of law for the allegations made against him by the plaintiff.  We can say that defendant is that person or entity who is being sued by the plaintiff and the burden of proof lies on the plaintiff as he is the one to file the complaint. But the Defendant also has a right to file a counter complaint against the plaintiff and then the plaintiff becomes the counter defendant and defendant becomes counter plaintiff and in this case the burden of proof lies on the defendant.

We can understand this with the following example:

Shrey is stopped at a red light. Anjali is driving behind Shrey and texting on her cell phone, Anjali doesn’t see Shrey’s car and she rear-ends him. Shrey is seriously injured and he files a lawsuit against Anjali to recover additional damages. In this case Shrey is the plaintiff and Anjali is the defendant. Here the burden of proof will be on Shrey to prove that Anjali was distracted while driving which resulted in the accident. But if Anjali files a counter complaint against Shrey then the burden of proof will be on Anjali to prove that she wasn’t distracted while driving.

The Plaintiff is generally named first in the case caption and defendant second. Here’s a quick example:

Frost v. White in this example Frost is the plaintiff and White is the defendant.

When we talk about Petitioner he/she files a petition in a higher court and asks the higher court to review the decision of the lower court. The petitioner is usually the party who has lost in the lower court. Under art 32 of the Indian Constitution which is also considered as a remedy to individuals whose fundamental right is been infringed, individuals under this article can file a petition in the Supreme Court. And under article 226 individuals can file a petition if there legal or fundamental right has been infringed.

The  difference between the term plaintiff and petitioner is that, plaintiff is the one who seeks remedy in a civil action whereas the petitioner is the one who invokes the help of a court to redress his grievances , for e.g.: any individual can be a petitioner and file a petition in case of public interest.

And in case of respondent and defendant as these terms are often inter- changeably and sometimes mistakenly identified as synonyms. The difference between these two terms is very subtle, defendant is that person who is being sued by the plaintiff in civil cases and who is been considered as an accused in criminal cases whereas a respondent is the person who responds to an appeal or petition filed against him/her.

A person becomes a defendant at the commencement of legal action and a person becomes a respondent when the losing party initiates case appeals against the decision of the lower court.

When we talk about Appellant and Petitioner, appellant is that person or litigant that makes an appeal in the court whereas petitioner is someone who presents a petition to a court. The difference between appellant and plaintiff is that plaintiff is the one who files a complaint in court for recovering damages suffered whereas appellant is the one who approaches the higher court with an appeal.

So as to conclude with the difference between plaintiff, petitioner, appellant, defendant and respondent is that all these are the parties to the cases brought up in the court of law and they are named according to the subject matter of each case.

Plaintiff and defendant are used when referring to any civil case and defendant is also used for accused in criminal cases. Petitioner and Respondent are used when referring to any petition filed in the higher courts. And lastly, Appellant and Respondent are used when referring to parties to an appeal.

[1]Petition – It is a formal request seeking a specific court order, made by a person, group or organization to the court   typically at the start of a lawsuit. It is simply a plea filed in court to enforce a legal or constitutional or statutory right.

[2] Appeal- Apply to higher court for reversal of the decision of a lower court.