What Are Pleadings and How are They Used?

A pleading is the formal writing that documents your lawsuit’s complaint or answer to a complaint. They are filed with the court and serve as the vehicle towards your recovery or your defense. Pleadings contain causes of action, prayers and affirmative defenses. There are also very specific requirements that must be contained within the pleading—things that must be “plead.”

If there are multiple parties, particularly separate defendants, they may file pleadings against one another, entitled cross-complaints. Answers to cross-complaints must also be filed.

Exactly what is a pleading and what is it used for? If you are the plaintiff, you will be filing a pleading called a “complaint.” This document contains not only the facts of what happened and why you claim that the defendant(s) are at fault, but other legally required information, like where the events occurred, where the parties live or entered into the transaction, and why this is the proper court. The facts set forth in the pleadings are called “allegations,” or what you “allege.” The factual allegations are combined with legal terminology to support a “cause of action,” a phrase that sets forth a legally recognized harm or violation of your rights. A pleading may contain different causes of action, if the defendant’s acts breached different duties. For example, you may allege that the defendant’s vehicle striking yours (a simple example) was done by accident, through inattention (negligence) or done on purpose (intentional tort). Each cause of action also seeks what may be different damages.

Why do the pleadings matter? If you are a plaintiff, what you allege in your pleadings, what causes of action you set forth, dictate what damages are recoverable. If you omit critical causes of action within your pleadings, you will not be able to seek certain forms of relief. Referring to the automobile accident example above, intentional torts carry the potential punishment of punitive damages—damages issued not to compensate the injured party, but to punish the defendant. Punitive damages are in excess of regular, compensatory damages. If you suffer from an intentional accident or harm and your lawyer does not include a cause of action for the intentional tort, your damages will be limited and certain damages will be precluded.

If you are the defendant, the plaintiff’s recovery is limited to the causes of action plead. Plaintiff’s attorneys may either include causes of action that are not applicable to the facts or else they do not set forth enough allegations to constitute a full and proper cause of action. Your lawyer must know enough about the causes of action to be able to file documents – and there are various kinds, each filed at different times during the litigation- challenging the pleadings. In that manner, your lawyer can cut down the plaintiff’s pleadings and minimize your exposure.

Defendant’s attorneys also file what is called an “answer” to the complaint. The answer usually contains what are entitled “affirmative defenses,” allegations which you may prove as a defendant which may either eliminate or reduce the claims against you.

If you are consulting an attorney to either bring an action or defend against one, be sure to ask the lawyer what pleadings they contemplate. Have the attorney explain what causes of action he or she intends upon bringing, or how the plaintiff’s pleadings will be attacked, and what affirmative defenses shall be raised. Make sure that your attorney has brought these causes of action, or defenses, enough times to know exactly what works before courts and juries.