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Conduct; behavior; something done; a series of acts.

A case or lawsuit; a legal and formal demand for enforcement of one's rights against another party asserted in a court of justice.

The term action includes all the proceedings attendant upon a legal demand, its adjudication, and its denial or its enforcement by a court. Specifically, it is the legal proceedings, while a Cause of Action is the underlying right that gives rise to them. In casual conversation, action and cause of action may be used interchangeably, but they are more properly distinguished. At one time, it was more correct to speak of actions at law and of proceedings or suits in Equity. The distinction is rather technical, however, and not significant since the merger of law and equity. The term action is used more often for civil lawsuits than for criminal proceedings.

Parties in an Action

A person must have some sort of legal right before starting an action. That legal right implies a duty owed to one person by another, whether it is a duty to do something or a duty not to do something. When the other person acts wrongfully or fails to act as the law requires, such behavior is a breach, or violation, of that person's legal duty. If that breach causes harm, it is the basis for a cause of action. The injured person may seek redress by starting an action in court.

The person who starts the action is the plaintiff, and the person sued is the defendant. They are the parties in the action. Frequently, there are multiple parties on a side. The defendant may assert a defense which, if true, will defeat the plaintiff's claim. A counterclaim may be made by the defendant against the plaintiff or a cross-claim against another party on the same side of the lawsuit. The law may permit Joinder of two or more claims, such as an action for property damage and an action for personal injuries, after one auto accident; or it may require consolidation of actions by an order of the court. Where prejudice or injustice is likely to result, the court may order a severance of actions into different lawsuits for different parties.

Commencement of an Action

The time when an action may begin depends on the kind of action involved. A plaintiff cannot start a lawsuit until the cause of action has accrued. For example, a man who wants to use a parcel of land for a store where only houses are allowed must begin by applying for a variance from the local Zoning board. He cannot bypass the board and start an action in court. His right to sue does not Accrue until the board turns down his request.

Neither can a person begin an action after the time allowed by law. Most causes of action are covered by a Statute of Limitations, which specifically limits the time within which to begin the action. If the law in a particular state says that an action for libel cannot be brought more than one year after publication of a defamatory statement, then those actions must be initiated within that statutory period. Where there is no statute that limits the time to commence a particular action, a court may nevertheless dismiss the case if the claim is stale and if litigation at that point would not be fair.

A plaintiff must first select the right court, then an action can be commenced by delivery of the formal legal papers to the appropriate person. Statutes that regulate proper procedure for this must be strictly observed. A typical statute specifies that an action may be begun by delivery of a summons, or a writ on the defendant. At one time, common-law actions had to be pleaded according to highly technical Forms of Action, but now it is generally sufficient simply to serve papers that state facts describing a recognized cause of action. If this Service of Process is done properly, the defendant has fair notice of the claim made against him or her and the court acquires jurisdiction over him or her. In some cases, the law requires delivery of the summons or writ to a specified public officer such as a U.S. marshal, who becomes responsible for serving it on the defendant.

Termination of an Action

After an action is commenced, it is said to be pending until termination. While the action is pending, neither party has the right to start another action in a different court over the same dispute or to do any act that would make the court's decision futile.

A lawsuit may be terminated because of dismissal before both sides have fully argued the merits of their cases at trial. It can also be ended because of Compromise and Settlement, after which the plaintiff withdraws his or her action from the court.

Actions are terminated by the entry of final judgments by the courts. A judgment may be based on a jury verdict or it may be a Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict. Where there has been no jury, judgment is based on the judge's decision. Unless one party is given leave—or permission from the court—to do something that might revive the lawsuit, such as amending an insufficient complaint, the action is at an end when judgment is formally entered on the records of the court.


Civil Procedure.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


n. a lawsuit in which one party (or parties) sues another. (See: cause of action, lawsuit)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.


a legal proceeding brought by one party against another, seeking redress of a wrong or recovery of what is due; a lawsuit.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

ACTION. Conduct, behaviour, something done. Nomen actionis latissime patere vulgo notum est ac comprehenders omnem omnino viventis operationem quae passioni opponitur. Vinnius, Com. lib. 4, tit. 6. De actionibus.
    2. Human actions have been divided into necessary actions, or those over which man has no control; and into free actions, or such as he can control at his pleasure. As man is responsible only when he exerts his will, it is clear lie can be punished only for the latter.
     3. Actions are also divided into positives and negative the former is called an act of commission the latter is the omission of something which ought to be done, and is called an act of omission. A man may be responsible as well for acts of omission, as for acts of commission.
     4. Actions are voluntary and involuntary. The former are performed freely and without constraint - the latter are performed not by choice, against one's will or in a manner independent of the will. In general a man is not responsible for his involuntary actions. Yet it has been ruled that if a lunatic hurt a man, he shall be answerable in trespass, although, if he kill a man, it is not felony. See Hob. Rep. 134; Popham, 162; Pam. N. P. 68. See also Duress; Will.

ACTION, French com. law. Stock in a company, shares in a corporation.

ACTION, in practice. Actio nihil aliud est, quam jus persequendi in judicio quod sibi debetur. Just. Inst. Lib. 4, tit. 6; Vinnius, Com. Actions are divided into criminal and civil. Bac. Abr. Actions, A.
     2.-1. A criminal action is a prosecution in a court of justice in the name of the government, against one or more individuals accused of a crime. See 1 Chitly's Cr. Law.
     3.-2. A civil action is a legal demand of one's right, or it is the form given by law for the recovery of that which is due. Co. Litt. 285; 3 Bl. Com. 116; 9 Bouv. Inst. n. 2639; Domat. Supp. des Lois Civiles, liv. 4, tit. 1, No. 1; Poth. Introd. generale aux Coutumes, 109; 1 Sell. Pr. Introd. s. 4, p. 73. Ersk. Princ. of Scot. Law, B. 41 t. 1. Sec. 1. Till judgment the writ is properly called an action, but not after, and therefore, a release of all actions is regularly no bar of all execution. Co. Litt. 289 a; Roll. Ab. 291. They are real, personal and mixed. An action is real or personal, according as realty or personalty is recovered; not according to the nature of the defence. Willes' Rep. 134.
     4.-1. Real actions are those brought for the specific recovery of lands, tenements, or hereditaments. Steph. Pl. 3. They are either procedural, when the demandant seeks to recover the property; or possessory when he endeavors to obtain the possession. Finch's Law, 257, 8. See Bac. Abr. Actions, A, contra. Real Actions are, 1st. Writs of right; 2dly, Writs of entry, which lie in the per, the per et cui, or the post, upon disseisin, intrusion, or alienation. 3dly. Writs ancestral possessory, as Mort d' ancester, aid, vbesaiel[?], cosinage, or Nuper obiit. Com. Dig. Actions, D 2. By these actions formerly all disputes concerning real estate, were decided; but now they are pretty generally laid aside in practice, upon account of the great nicety required in their management, and the inconvenient length of their process; a much more expeditious, method of trying titles being since introduced by other actions, personal and mixed. 3 Bl. Com. 118. See Booth on Real Actions.
     5.-2. Personal actions are those brought for the specific recovery of goods and chattels; or for damages or other redress for breach of contract, or other injuries, of whatever description; the specific recovery of lands, tenements, and hereditaments only excepted. Steph. Pl. 3; Com. Dig. Actions, D 3; 3 Bouv. Inst. n. 2641. Personal actions arise either upon contracts, or for wrongs independently of contracts. The former are account, assumpsit, covenant, debt, and detinue; see these words. In Connecticut and Vermont there is, an action used which is peculiar to those states, called the action of book debt. 2 Swift's Syst. Ch. 15. The actions for wrongs, injuries, or torts, are trespass on the case, replevin, trespass, trover. See these words, and see Actio personalis moritur cum persona.
     6.-3. Mixed actions are such as appertain, in some degree, to both the former classes, and, therefore, are properly reducible to neither of them, being brought for the specific recovery of lands, tenements, or hereditaments, and for damages for injury sustained in respect of such property. Steph. Pl. 3; Co. Litt. 284, b; Com. Dig. Actions, D 4. Every mixed action, properly so called, is also a real action. The action of ejectment is a personal action, and formerly, a count for an assault and battery might be joined with a count for the recovery of a term of Years in land.
     7. Actions are also divided into those which are local and such as are transitory.
     1. A local action is one in which the venue must still be laid in the county, in which the cause of action actually arose. The locality of actions is founded in some cases, on common law principles, in others on the statute law.
     8. Of those which continue local, by the common law, are, 1st, all actions in which the subject or thing to be recovered is in its nature local. Of this class are real actions, actions of waste, when brought on the statute of Gloucester, (6 Edw. I.) to recover with the damages, the locus in quo or place wasted; and actions of ejectment. Bac. Abr. Actions Local, &c. A, a; Com. Dig. Actions, N 1; 7 Co. 2 b; 2 Bl. Rep. 1070. All these are local, because they are brought to recover the seisin or possession of lands or tenements, which are local subjects.
     9.-2dly. Various actions which do not seek the direct recovery of lands or tenements, are also local, by the common law; because they arise out of some local subject, or the violation of some local right or interest.

ACTION, PROHIBITORY, civil law. An action instituted to avoid a sale on account of some Vice or defect in the thing sold which readers it either absolutely useless, or its use so inconvenient and, imperfect, that it must be, supposed the buyer would not have purchased it, had he known of the vice. Civ. Code of Louis. art. 2496.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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