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Plaintiff vs Defendant — What's the difference

Patrick Austin, J.D. | April 11, 2024

Patrick Austin
Attorney from George Mason
Patrick Austin, JD

Patrick Austin is a licensed attorney with a background in data privacy and information security law. Patrick received his law degree at George Mason University's Antonin Scalia Law School, where he served as the Editor-in-Chief for the National Security Law Journal.

Edited by Hannah Locklear

Hannah Locklear
Editor at SoloSuit
Hannah Locklear, BA

Hannah Locklear is SoloSuit’s Marketing and Impact Manager. With an educational background in Linguistics, Spanish, and International Development from Brigham Young University, Hannah has also worked as a legal support specialist for several years.

Fact-checked by George Simons, JD/MBA

George Simons
Co-Founder of SoloSuit
George Simons, JD/MBA

George Simons is the co-founder and CEO of SoloSuit. He has helped Americans protect over $1 billion from predatory debt lawsuits. George graduated from BYU Law school in 2020 with a JD/MBA. In his spare time, George likes to cook, because he likes to eat.

Summary: The difference between a plaintiff and defendant is who started the lawsuit. The plaintiff is the party that initiates a civil lawsuit, and the defendant is the party that must defend themself in court.

In a civil case, a plaintiff is the party that brings legal action or in whose name such action is brought. The defendant is the party targeted by the legal action filed by the plaintiff. This article discusses the key differences between plaintiffs and defendants in debt collection lawsuits. More specifically, in a debt lawsuit:

  • Plaintiff = the person or company that is suing someone else for debt
  • Defendant = the person or company that is being sued for a debt (whether they owe it or not)

In a civil case, what is the difference between a plaintiff and a defendant?

The difference between a plaintiff and defendant is who started the lawsuit. The plaintiff is the party that initiates a civil lawsuit, and the defendant is the party that must defend themself in court.

Here are a few other key differences between a plaintiff and defendant:

Keep reading to learn more.

What is a plaintiff in a court case?

The plaintiff is usually the person or entity filing the case in a court case, and more specifically, in a debt collection lawsuit. So, the plaintiff could be a creditor or debt collection agency.

For example, Jane signs up for a credit card with American Express and is accepted. She starts using the card for most of her purchases, but when she loses her job during the COVID-19 pandemic, she falls behind on her credit card payments. After a few months of missed payments, American Express charges off Jane's account and sells the debt to a debt collection agency called Midland Funding LLC. At this point, Midland keeps contacting Jane about the debt, but she is unable to pay due to financial hardship during the pandemic. Eventually, Midland Funding LLC files a lawsuit against Jane to try to get her to pay off the debt.

In this example, Midland Funding LLC is the plaintiff in the case, and Jane is the defendant.The term plaintiff is related to the word complain. Midland Funding LLC, otherwise referred to as the plaintiff, is filing a complaint against Jane in this context.

Is plaintiff the same as complainant?

In most criminal cases, the plaintiff is usually referred to as the complainant. The word plaintiff is mostly used in civil cases such as personal injury, debt collection, among others. So, if you're involved in a debt lawsuit case, you probably won't hear the word complainant to describe the person or company suing you.

Who is the defendant in a case?

The defendant is the person being sued in a civil lawsuit, or in a criminal case, the person who has committed a crime and must defend their case.

So, if you are being sued by a debt collector, you will be the defendant in the case. If you have committed a crime, or are being accused of a crime, you will also be the defendant in a court setting.

Using the example above, Jane would be the defendant in the case. A helpful hint to remember this term is that the defendant is the one who must defend themself against the allegations or claims that the plaintiff is making.

The word 'defendant' derives from the term 'defense' and the action of defending yourself against a claim (complaint filed by the plaintiff). So, if you're being sued for debt like Jane, the law allows you to defend yourself against the plaintiff's allegations.

The Burden of Proof for the plaintiff and defendant in debt collection lawsuits

The term burden of proof describes the responsibility one party has to prove the truth of their claim against the other. For example, when Midland Funding LLC files a debt collection lawsuit against Jane, they must prove that she owes the debt.

However, the burden of proof varies depending on the nature of the case. For example, in civil cases such as those involving debt collection, the plaintiff doesn't have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant owes them the debt in question. Instead, they only have to convince the judge or jury that there is more than a 50% chance that the claim filed against the defendant is true. In most cases, the heavier the evidence against the defendant, the better it is for the plaintiff.

On the other hand, criminal cases require the plaintiff to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the allegations being adjudicated.

Examples of burden of proof in debt collection laws

To further understand the difference between a plaintiff and a defendant in debt collection laws, let's discuss how the burden of proof switches from one party to the other throughout the case. Again, we'll use the Midland Funding LLC vs Jane example for reference.

When Midland Funding LLC files the debt collection lawsuit, Jane receives a court Summons and Complaint. The Summons informs Jane (the defendant) of the lawsuit, and the Complaint lists each specific claim against her. When Janes receives this document, she can answer each claim with one of the following response:

  • Admit (like saying This is true.)
  • Deny (like saying Prove it.)
  • Deny due to lack of knowledge (like saying I don't know.)

Most attorneys recommend denying everything listed in the Complaint. By doing so, the burden of proof shifts back to the plaintiff. So, if Jane denies everything in her Answer to the Complaint, It'll be Midland Funding's responsibility to prove that she owes the debt in question.

Midland can't seek further legal action against Jane during that time unless they prove that she owes the debt. It's pretty common for debt collection agencies to give up at this point, because they often lack the proper documentation to prove that the debt was actually transferred to them. Jane may be surprised to find that Midland Funding is claiming an incorrect amount too. This is because while Midland Funding purchased the debt, they may not have enough resources or even time to prove the debt is valid..

Since the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, Jane should not elaborately explain her side of the story in her response to the Complaint. Rather, she should simply respond to each paragraph listed in the Complaint, and wait to hear back from Midland Funding (like we said, many debt collection agencies would rather dismiss the case at this point than continue paying court costs and attorney fees).

If, however, Midland proves that Jane owes the debt but she still disputes it, the burden or proof now shifts back to her. For example, if Jane's affirmative defenses state that the debt has already been paid, she'll need to provide proof of this.

Ultimately, a judge might have the final word regarding the debt collection lawsuit. In some cases, the judge may recommend mediation or arbitration if deemed necessary to have the issue solved out of court.

Verify your debt before paying

By the time a lawsuit is filed against you, the debt might have switched hands several times, increasing the chances of discrepancies. For example, if the original amount owed is $10,000, a debt collection agency might mistakenly or intentionally add an extra zero to the amount, meaning you supposedly owe $100,000.

Such cases happen all the time, and unfortunately, consumers end up paying for debt they don't even owe in the first place. This explains why it's necessary to request further verification of the debt before making any payments on it. Besides, requesting a debt validation also buys you more time to plan the best strategy to approach the lawsuit. You can do this by sending a Debt Validation Letter.

You can learn more about Debt Validation Letters (i.e. how to draft one, what debt validation means, etc.) in this video:

The bottom line

Whether or not you owe a debt, it's always advisable to respond to a debt collection Summons. Ignoring the Summons doesn't mean that everything has been settled or will magically disappear. Instead, ignoring allows the plaintiff to convince the court to pass a default judgment against you. A default judgment gives the plaintiff legal authority to seek other lawful ways to recover the debt. In most cases, the plaintiff will seek a wage garnishment order which requires your employer to deduct a portion of your wages and forward it to the plaintiff to settle the debt.

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