Qui Tam, Explained

The United States permits qui tam lawsuits under the False Claims Act.  What does this mean?  How is the word pronounced?  We will cover both of those questions shortly in our discussion of this aspect of whistleblower law.

What does it mean?

Most people searching for the phrase are probably looking for the definition.  Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines the word as “an action to recover a penalty under a statute that gives part of the penalty to the one bringing the action and the rest to the state or a public body.”  The word is short for a longer Latin phrase, qui tam pro domino rege quam pro se ipso in hac parte sequitur.  It means “[he] who sues in this matter for the king as well as for himself.”

The History

In 13th century England, lawsuits were authorized on behalf of the king to enforce English laws.  Qui tam provisions were also popular in colonial America and in the early United States.  It provided a mechanism to enforce the law when there were few law enforcement officers.  They fell out of favor in England and the United States, but are still used in the whistleblower context in the United States.


Black’s Law Dictionary indicates that the pronunciation of the term is kwày tæm, but most people in practice simply say “key tam”.

Why allow qui tam lawsuits in the False Claims Act?

When an individual files a complaint against a party in a court of law, the plaintiff must have standing to sue.  The court normally does not allow one individual to sue on behalf of another individual.  A parent may sue on behalf of their child, for example.  But ordinarily, it is not permitted.

The False Claims Act compels courts to allow a relator, as the individual is known under the law, bring the lawsuit in the name of the United States.  The law sought to create a public-private partnership between whistleblowers and the U.S. Government.  In cases where the United States, for whatever reason, does not want to expend its resources in pursuit of compensation, the law allows the relator to do so.  If the individual recovers, the United States recovers most of the proceeds from the litigation and the plaintiff-relator is entitled to a share (between 25 and 30 percent when the Justice Department declines to intervene).

The SEC, CFTC and IRS whistleblower programs rely solely on the government to bring an enforcement action against corporate wrongdoing violating federal law.  However, there have been calls to allow qui tam actions to enforce the nation’s tax laws as well.  The False Claims Act specifically excludes that category of cases against the government.

Other Laws

The False Claims Act is not the only law that contains a provision allowing individuals to sue on behalf of the government.  People may also sue on behalf of the United States for the violation of Indian protection laws, the removal of undersea treasure from the Florida coast to foreign nations, and arming vessels against our allies.


Our False Claims Act lawyers will be happy to answer your questions about bringing a qui tam lawsuit and discuss the benefits and drawbacks of whistleblowing.  Please call us during normal business hours at 1-800-590-4116 or fill out our contact form any time.

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