You recently received a package from the court by certified mail, or worse, delivered by the Sheriff. You open the package to discover it is a court issued summons identifying you as a party in a lawsuit. The summons says you have 20 days to respond. Congratulations, you’re getting sued, now what?
The most important thing is don’t ignore the summons. Ignoring a summons can result in huge penalties in court. While no one likes to get sued, ignoring the situation will only make it worse.
A civil summons is a document that puts a party on notice that a lawsuit has been filed against them. Included with the summons is the initial complaint. You should read the entire complaint that came with the lawsuit. The complaint sets out the claim and relief sought by the party filing the lawsuit. You should then seek the appropriate attorney who handles the type of lawsuit in the compliant. Time is important. Any delay can hurt your case.
If the complaint is for damages in a motor vehicle accident, you should contact your insurance company immediately. You have a duty to notify them under the insurance contract. Once notified, the insurance company has a duty to hire a lawyer to represent you under the insurance contract.
In most other cases, even though you might have to pay for a lawyer, it is usually wise to retain a lawyer or at the very least consult one. Many consultations are free and are usually helpful. If you can’t afford a lawyer, reach out to nonprofit organizations or your county or state bar association for programs that provide free or reduced legal representation.
Thinking about representing yourself? Don’t. Let me repeat, don’t. Lawyers are required to be licensed after extensive education, testing, venting, and training. In order to represent clients in court, a lawyer must have a firm knowledge of countless rules and procedures. Even some lawyers and judges can have difficulty understanding these rules.
I recently witnessed two cases in court where the parties tried to represent themselves with equally disastrous results. Even though the first party had managed to file a response to the initial complaint, she had failed to comply with timelines set forth by the rules. She was being compelled to respond in 7 days by the Judge, who was not happy. When the hearing was over, you could tell she was still unsure about what she should do to comply with the Judge’s order.
In the second case, the party failed to respond within 20 days and was facing a default judgment. A default judgment is a judgment against a party that is entered for their failure to respond to the summons and complaint within 20 days. Once entered the party can no longer defend themselves against the allegations in the lawsuit and may face damages, court costs or attorneys fees from the other party. The court gave the second party some additional time to provide a reason why a response wasn’t filed. If one wasn’t, she would enter the default judgment. Unfortunately, none of the responses given in court would prevent the judge from entering it.
It is very difficult for a lawyer who is hired too late in a case, to change the current bad situation. Even if they can, you will likely pay more attorney fees in getting a bad situation undone, then you would have paid hiring an attorney immediately. If your case involves an insurance company, failure to act immediately may prejudice your insurance company, who might have defenses to the duties set forth in the contract.
There is an old saying among lawyers; “He who represents himself in court has a fool for a client.” You’re getting sued, now what? Well, start by not being a fool.