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FindLaw Legal Dictionary

The FindLaw Legal Dictionary -- free access to over 8260 definitions of legal terms. Search for a definition or browse our legal glossaries.

Defendant, n

What Is a Defendant?

A defendant is a person or entity (like a company) that has been sued or accused of a crime. In some civil cases, especially family law cases, the defendant is called the respondent.

Defendant vs. Plaintiff

The plaintiff is the person or entity who files the lawsuit, also known as the claimant. The defendant is the person or entity being sued. In a case name such as Johnson v. Smith, you will see the plaintiff(s) (Johnson) listed before the v., and the defendant(s) (Smith) after the v.

Criminal Case Example

In a criminal case, the defendant is the person accused of committing a crime. For example, if someone is accused of murder, the government will bring a criminal case against them. The government is the plaintiff, and the accused is the defendant.

Civil Case Example

If a defective product injures you, you might bring a civil lawsuit against the manufacturer of the product. You would be the plaintiff, and the manufacturer would be the defendant. There can be more than one plaintiff and more than one defendant. You might, for example, file a claim against both the manufacturer and the seller.

What Is the Difference Between a Defendant and a Respondent?

These are different terms that have similar meanings. Many family law courts choose to use the term respondent over defendant, but the respondent is still the person who the case is brought against.

The term respondent is also used in appeals. If, for example, the court rules against the manufacturer in the civil case above, the manufacturer may appeal the case. The roles swap a bit here, where the original plaintiff is now defending their win. They are the respondent, while the manufacturer (original defendant) is the petitioner.

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