A pleading in the alternative sets forth multiple claims or defenses either hypothetically or alternatively, such that if one of the claims or defenses are held invalid or insufficient, the other claims or defenses should still have to be answered.
One example, submitting an injury complaint alleging that the harm to the defendant caused by the plaintiff was so outrageous that it must have either been intended as a malicious attack or, if not, must have been due to gross negligence.
At a late 1970s American Bar Association seminar in New York, Richard "Racehorse" Haynes gave this example: "Say you sue me because you say my dog bit you. Well, now this is my defense: My dog doesn't bite. And second, in the alternative, my dog was tied up that night. And third, I don't believe you really got bit. And fourth, I don't have a dog." Normally such arguments would seem to cancel each other on their face, however, legally "even if" and "anyway" clauses need not be argued; mutually exclusive defenses can be advanced without excuses for their relationship to each other. Of course jurists might be influenced by dual defenses such as "my dog was tied up" and "I don't have a dog", but this must be weighed against the fact that defenses may not be allowed if they are introduced too late.
The United States Federal Rules of Civil Procedure state "...A party may set forth two or more statements of a claim or defense alternately or hypothetically, either in one count or defense or in separate counts or defenses. When two or more statements are made in the alternative and one of them if made independently would be sufficient, the pleading is not made insufficient by the insufficiency of one or more of the alternative statements. A party may also state as many separate claims or defenses as the party has regardless of consistency and whether based on legal, equitable, or maritime grounds..."
Because pleading in the alternative is generally permitted in criminal cases, a defendant may claim to have not committed the crime itself, but at the same time may claim that if the defendant had committed the crime, the act was excused for a reason such as insanity or intoxication, or was justified due to provocation or self defense. However, a jury will naturally be suspicious if a defendant claims the benefits of, for example, both alibi and self defense.
- "Pleading in the alternative" as defined in the Memidex/WordNet dictionary
- The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, October 31, 1978, reprinted spring 1980 in a small circulation magazine, available here.