Complaint Legal Definition

In Civil Law, a “complaint” is the very first formal action taken to officially begin a lawsuit. This written document contains the allegations against the defense, the specific laws violated, the facts that led to the dispute, and any demands made by the plaintiff to restore justice.

Complaint Definition

Related Terms:

Answer – The first formal response given by the defense to the complaint submitted by the plaintiff. This opening written statement will admit or deny any mentioned allegations, or demand more information about the claims of wrongdoing. Full “Answer” Definition Here

Summons – This written document issued by a court serves as an official notification for a defendant that there is lawsuit or legal action against them. It will normally be accompanied by the plaintiff’s complaint, delivered by a U.S. marshall or other authorized authority, and wfredill give the defense an opportunity to respond to the allegations.

Proof of Service – Sometimes called an Affidavit of Service – this court paper is the evidence that a complaint, summons, or other legal documents have been properly delivered to the defense. It will be signed under oath and filed with the court clerk as a record that required legal procedure has been followed.

How To Write a Legal Complaint

A complaint is a very common type of formal statement (called a pleading) that notes the details and causes for someone taking legal action against another party. In order for a complaint to be valid and accepted by a court, specific rules must be followed.

According to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, these guidelines below should be used by the plaintiff in a complaint:

Rule 8. General Rules of Pleading

(a) Claim for Relief. A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain:

  • (1) a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court’s jurisdiction, unless the court already has jurisdiction and the claim needs no new jurisdictional support;
  • (2) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; and
  • (3) a demand for the relief sought, which may include relief in the alternative or different types of relief.

Items to notice in this legal complaint example include:

  • the use of pleading paper: letter sized (8.5” x 11”) containing the numbers 1-28 typed down the left side of each page
  • formatting must be followed as governed by the local rules of each state indicating how and where to include names of parties involved, case number, title of complaint and beyond

Essential Elements of a Legal Complaint

The following elements of a complaint should be included and considered required for most lawsuits:

Statement of Facts: a detailed explanation of the facts of the case

Parties: Who is being sued by whom? Lists the plaintiff and defendant

Causes of Action: This should list the claims and allegations the plaintiff is making against the defense

Jurisdiction: You must demonstrate why a certain court has the power to hear and decide on your case

Venue: This will explain why you are choosing to sue in a particular county or district

Claim for Relief: Your complaint must outline the specific actions and / or compensation you are requesting that the court makes a final judgment upon


Legal Complaint: Let’s Break It Down In Layman’s Terms

Sam was injured in a serious motorcycle accident when another vehicle swerved into his lane. He is claiming that the driver acted negligently, speaks to his attorney, and decides to pursue legal action in order collect payment for the loss of his vehicle, escalating medical expenses, one full month of missed work (so far), and pain and suffering damages.

When Sam and his lawyer organize all of the details, the car accident attorney then drafts and submits a formal written complaint to begin legal action, has it filed with the court clerk, gets a summons issued in order to properly notify the driver of the other vehicle that they are being sued, and gets it certified correctly with a proof of service document.

The complaint has listed all of the essential items including the facts of what happened at the collision scene, why a lawsuit is being pursued, and what actions and money are demanded to restore justice.

Sam, the plaintiff in this case, with complaint now filed and delivered, will await an answer from the defense to determine what the next course of action will be — perhaps a quick negotiation leading to a settlement, or a beginning of the discovery phase, which will uncover all evidence available in the case.

You might hear “complaint” used like this, here’s what it means:

“We’ve filed the complaint, now we need to wait for their answer.”

The plaintiff has taken the necessary actions to begin a lawsuit. Now they are waiting for the defense to respond with the answer, their opportunity to accept or deny the allegations made against them.

“We’ll get the sheriff to serve the summons and complaint and will be on our way with suit.”
Since it requires a third party to serve these legal documents, we can hire the sheriff to deliver the legal complaint and the notification from the court to the defendant. The lawsuit will officially be underway once this happens.

Other law glossary terms to investigate:

Find more essential legal terms by clicking the image below:

The Law Glossary


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