In this article...

Watch Our Video
Heather Jones

If you’ve stumbled upon this article, the chances are that you have been served a lawsuit. At this time, you’re probably feeling pretty tense. A stranger showed up at your place of work or your home, handed you some papers, and told you that you are being sued. No one is ever prepared to deal with the reality of a lawsuit. The lawsuit papers you are given can be confusing and even scary. When you read the lawsuit, the claims are false or twisted from what you know happened. You don’t know the next steps or how to take them. The first thing to do is try not to panic. Do not reach out to the other side about the papers you got. The next step is to contact an experienced lawsuit attorney near you who can review and evaluate the situation. This article can help with some of the more fundamental questions regarding being served a lawsuit and what happens if you don’t answer.  


What Papers Should I Expect to See If I Am Served with a Lawsuit?


So, a process server or maybe a sheriff’s deputy showed up at your home or place of work and handed you a stack of papers. The first thing to do is sit down when you are calm and review the papers as carefully as possible. Keep a notepad next to you when you do this, don’t write on the papers you were served. You will at least have a document known as a summons and then a complaint or petition in your possession at this time. Let’s look at what these different documents are and how they work.  


Summons-a summons accompanies all complaints or petitions filed in any state. The summons lives up to its title by informing you that you are being summoned into court. Does that mean that there is already a court date set? No, not for the more significant civil cases. Sometimes a small claims summons will give you a deadline where you have to either file a written answer or appear in court to dispute the claims made against you. Still, the court date in civil litigation will not be set until the served party has filed their timely answer or response. On the other hand, not responding will not save you from a court date being set, as you will see later in the article.  


There is a lot of important information in every summons, so you must read it carefully. The summons will tell you that you are being sued. The summons will tell you who is suing you and what court the lawsuit is in. The summons will also tell you how long you have to reply, which is a crucial issue. You need to know how long you must collect information and file an answer or response and possible counterclaims.  


Complaint or petition-depending on what the other side is suing you about, you would receive either a complaint or a petition. Typically, a state will use a petition for things like divorce, and the parties are referred to as petitioner and respondent. A complaint, on the other hand, uses plaintiff and defendant. Each document does the same thing. They tell the court that the party who filed the document wants something from the court. They want a divorce, money, and the court to order the other party to do something or to stop doing something. They are asking the court for legal relief.  


Together these documents are commonly referred to as pleadings, as in they plead for relief.  


A critical thing to check whenever you get served with a document is you should look for a file stamp in the upper right-hand corner of the document you receive. If the documents are not file-stamped, they have not been filed. If the documents are not filed, there is no case open. It is rare for this to happen, but it does. If there is no file stamp, you should call the clerk of court in the court the document says it is in and ask about it. For example, if the document says it is in Brown County, call the Brown County clerk of court and tell them what’s going on. For more general information read our article, What Happens When You Get Served with a Lawsuit?  

Do You Have to Respond to a Lawsuit?  


In a nutshell, you do if you don’t want a judgment entered against you. You cannot ignore official court documents and think everything will end up being fine; it won’t. Furthermore, if you change your mind and suddenly show up at a hearing, the court will not be happy that you ignored the summons and just blew the whole thing off for a while. The court is a serious place. Judges are serious people. The legal system has power over you. Don’t ignore the lawsuit.  



What Happens If I Don’t Respond To A Lawsuit?


The answer to this question builds off the answer given directly above. You need to respond to the lawsuit. The summons gives you the number of days you have to respond to the lawsuit. You need to prepare and file an answer before the time runs out. If you do not file an answer or response before the time runs out, the other side will request that the court enter a default judgment against you.  


A court is an adversarial place. Each side in a lawsuit will present their argument as to why or why certain things are not true and why relief should be granted. The idea of filing a response or answer to the lawsuit against you is that you get your chance to say it’s not true, not accurate, and there should be no relief given to their side. If you fail to respond, the court is forced to grant a default judgment against you. This means that by not responding, the court has to assume that you do not dispute what the other side is claiming and, therefore, it is true.  


Getting a default judgment can create many long-term problems for you. If you do not work to get the default judgment set aside, you are subject to paying or giving the other side the relief that they asked the court for. That could be money, access to your children, or property you know is yours.  


You can ask the court to set the default judgment aside, but you have to have a good reason, and some jurisdictions are more flexible on this than others. You must provide evidence showing why you missed the deadline to respond that the summons gave you. “I just forgot about it” will not cut it in the eyes of the court. As explained above, the court is a serious place. While it might give you a few chances here and there, in the interest of justice, it will not forgive a casual or dilatory attitude towards the court. Additionally, you would probably need to hire an attorney in order to get the default set aside because it’s a more complex undertaking, so you will also be paying more money than you have to pay to deal with the lawsuit. If the power of the court doesn’t get your attention, maybe the fact that you are spending money you usually wouldn’t have to will.  


How Should I Respond to a Lawsuit?


First and foremost, consider meeting with an attorney as soon as you get served. At the very least, you need to know what the claims mean and the possible consequences of losing the lawsuit. If you have defenses and counterclaims, you can bring them to the table. Litigation is a battle; you need to know if you have soldiers who can fight for you.  


The summons will tell you when you need to respond to the lawsuit. You will need to prepare an answer or response to the lawsuit. You will also need to explore any possible defenses and counterclaims you want the court to know about. If you have any evidence that exonerates you or supports any of your counterclaims against the other side, gather that evidence and get it organized.  


If you are representing yourself, you can probably find forms online that the court offers for pro se litigants. If you have an attorney, they will handle everything for you.  


Once you have written your response or answer, you need to get it filed. It needs to be filed before the deadline given in the summons. You will need to go to the courthouse and file the documents with the clerk of the courts. You need to keep a copy of the file-stamped documents for your records.  


Once the documents are filed, you can breathe a small sigh of relief because you met your deadline, and your voice will be heard. Then you must mail copies of your file-stamped answer or response to the other side. Some states offer online filing, and if both parties are signed up for it, you don’t have to mail a copy; it will be emailed to them upon filing by the clerk.  


Why Should I Get A Litigation Attorney If I Am Being Sued?


There are so many reasons you should seriously consider hiring a litigation attorney if you are being sued, even if it is for something “small.” An Experience litigation attorney can keep your lawsuit on track and save you money by only focusing on legally relevant issues and explaining what is going on to you so that you can make informed decisions regarding your case. So many people have tried to be their attorneys only to fail, creating unnecessary hardship for themselves. An experienced attorney knows what needs to be done to comply with the relevant procedure and knows how to evaluate the merits of the other side’s case dispassionately and what evidence and defenses are relevant to your side of the case.  


In summation, if you don’t appropriately respond to the lawsuit in the amount of time the papers you are served with tells you to, the other side will win. You can set it aside, but it will probably take time and money. Plus, there is always the chance that the court will decline to set it aside, depending on your circumstances. If you have been served with a lawsuit, you should meet with an experienced attorney who can assist you. Feel free to give O’Flaherty law a call, and we would be happy to help you.  

Disclaimer: The information provided on this blog is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Each individual's legal needs are unique, and these materials may not be applicable to your legal situation. Always seek the advice of a competent attorney with any questions you may have regarding a legal issue. Do not disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.

FREE Litigation & Dispute ResolutionE-Book

Get my FREE E-Book

Similar Articles

Learn about Law