If you’re currently in a serious dispute with another person or business, you may need to be on the lookout for a lawsuit. Whether you think a lawsuit is necessary or not, someone else might, and it's important to consult an attorney. Here’s what happens if someone files suit against you.
You’ve seen it dramatized in movies and TV shows: getting served. How you are served depends on the case. Typically, a sheriff or certified process server will come to your home and deliver the initial court documents. In some circumstances, you need to receive the paperwork directly. In others, it can be received by another adult at your home or office. There are also instances where the original documents are mailed directly to you. The U.S. Marshals publish the rules for service of process for each state.
However it happens, you are going to get a bundle of paperwork that contains notice of the lawsuit, the complaint, and a summons to court.
The worst thing you can do when you receive notice is ignore it. If you refuse to show up in court, you could be held in contempt. Or, if the plaintiff is asking for money, they could get a default judgment against you, which means you would owe them money without having defended yourself. Attorney Mike Reeves of Friend, Hudak & Harris, LLP provides more in-depth steps of what to do after being served.
If the lawsuit involves insurance agencies—as in the case of a car accident—it is also crucial that you provide your insurance agent with notice so that they can provide you with representation.
“You want to get notice to your insurance companies,” says Jack Hickey of Hickey Law Firm, an attorney who has a background in both serving and defending lawsuits for clients. “Why is that? Number one, because, in order for them to hire a lawyer, they have to have received timely notice. If you delay, they can claim prejudice later on, and they won’t hire a lawyer for you. You’re on your own.”
Once you find out you have been named as a defendant in a lawsuit, you—or, better yet, an attorney—must file an appearance in your case. The appearance is a document you fill out and file with the clerk of the court. It tells the court you received notice and are responding to the lawsuit. You will only have a short window of time to file your appearance. This window is usually 20 to 30 days, though this depends on the jurisdiction.
Urgency is important in responding to a lawsuit against you. Just like receiving and issuing proper notice, failing to respond within the required window of time will stop your case before it begins.
“When you’re served with a complaint, you have typically 20 days to respond,” Hickey says. “Twenty days from the time you actually receive it to respond. What happens if you don’t? You can get a default issued against you, and you just lost the entire lawsuit because you delayed at the beginning.”
Among the initial documents you receive will be the complaint. This lays out the legal claim against you. You should read it thoroughly. Then, have an attorney read it and give you an objective opinion about what to do next. It may be that all you need to do is show up in court on the date and time listed.
You may also need to file an answer, which is your opportunity to respond to the plaintiff’s allegations. Illinois Legal Aid Online provides a good deal of information regarding when filing an answer is necessary and appropriate. If you answer the complaint, you must respond to each statement within it. For each statement, you must admit, deny, agree and deny in part, or state you lack the knowledge required to admit or deny. Within the answer, you can include affirmative defenses and counterclaims against the plaintiff.
After the complaint, service, appearance, and answer, you enter into the second stage of a lawsuit known as discovery. At this point, you will have made an initial appearance in court. Now it is time to exchange information with the other party.
As the American Bar Association (ABA) explains, this can be done through a variety of methods, including depositions and interrogatories. Depositions are out of court testimonies. Interrogatories are questions you receive or ask the other party, which the recipient must answer under oath. Both sides can also utilize requests for production of documents, which are formal requests for you or the other party to be given copies of certain documents.
Throughout the legal process, you and the other side can make various motions. Through a motion, you ask the court to rule on a certain issue or to take certain steps. There are myriad types of motions your or the other party’s attorney may utilize, including a motion to compel, motion to strike, and a motion for a new trial.
Each of you may request the ability to amend your complaint or answer. You may file a motion to dismiss, which would enable the judge to end the case, or the other party could ask for summary judgment, which would resolve the case in their favor.
After discovery is concluded, and if the case was not settled or resolved through a motion hearing, then you and the other party prepare for trial. Depending on what you requested when you answered the case, you may have a trial before one judge or before a jury.
During a trial, each party is entitled to give an opening statement, question witnesses, cross-examine the other side’s witnesses, enter evidence into the record, and give closing statements. When each side is finished, the judge or jury deliberate and present a verdict. The ABA provides a great deal of information regarding the steps of civil trials, from jury selection through to sentencing and appeals.
If you are served court documents and you don’t know what to do next, call an attorney. An experienced lawyer may be able to negotiate the issue with the plaintiff and help you avoid a lengthy suit and will alert you to crucial deadlines. They will also help you respond appropriately and learn how to protect your rights, and how to prevent future legal issues that may arise from the same underlying problems.
“You need to look at what went wrong,” Hickey says. “Did I do anything wrong here? And, if so, how can I make it better? Whether it’s a pothole on your driveway that the mailman tripped in, or whether you went into business with a partner and he or she turned out to be a problem. Maybe your contract wasn’t written correctly. There are all kinds of things, but definitely you need to do a postmortem—not after the lawsuit is done, but right after the problem arises, and certainly in the lawsuit.”
Whatever the legal claim against you, there’s an attorney who is right for you and will fight for the best possible outcome in your case.