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What is the Difference Between a Legal and Equitable Claim?

Many people think that winning a lawsuit means winning money. That isn't always the case. There are two types of claims: legal and equitable. While plaintiffs pursuing a legal claim ask a court to award money, litigants bringing an equitable claim ask a court to either prompt or stop a particular action or event.

Legal Claims

In a legal claim, a plaintiff explains to the court how the defendant's actions cause him to suffer a loss. That loss could have occurred in the past, or it may occur in the future.

The goal in the legal claim is for the defendant to compensate the plaintiff and make her "whole." If the plaintiff wins, the judge will order the defendant to pay money to the plaintiff for loss or injury, also known as "damages."

Example: Amy hits Natalie while driving. Natalie survives, but she sustains serious injuries. Natalie can bring a legal claim against Amy, asking the court for money damages. Natalie would most likely want Amy to pay for the medical bills that resulted from the injury, as well as any lost future earnings.

Equitable Claims

A plaintiff who seeks equitable relief is asking the court for an injunction. An injunction is a court order compelling a party to do or refrain from doing a specified act.

A court awards an injunction to prevent a future harmful action -- rather than to compensate for a past injury -- or to provide relief from harm for which an award of money damages is not a satisfactory solution or for which a monetary value is impossible to calculate.

Example: The Springfield City Council decides to re-zone a parcel of residential land as commercial land. The neighbors, who own homes on the neighboring parcels, are not pleased by this decision. The neighbors can sue the City Council, and ask the court to issue a preliminary or permanent injunction to block the law from taking effect.

Hybrid Cases

A lawsuit can include both legal and equitable claims. A plaintiff who suffers a loss as the result of a defendant's policy or procedure may choose to file a hybrid case. Employment law cases frequently include both legal and equitable claims: the legal claim could be for lost wages, while the equitable claim might be a request to change the company policy that led to the plaintiff's loss.

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