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Don’t panic if a process server shows up at your door
You sit down on your couch after a long day of work, ready to catch up on the newest episode of your favorite television show, when you hear a knock on the door.
You set down your box of takeout food and peer out the window. A middle-aged woman is standing on your front step, holding a stack of papers.
“Are you John Smith?” she asks when you open the door.
“Yes,” you respond.
She hands you the stack of papers and tells you that you’ve been served.
What is a personal injury lawsuit?
A personal injury lawsuit is a civil lawsuit in which the person filing the lawsuit (the plaintiff) claims to have suffered physical or emotional harm due to the actions of the person being sued (the defendant).
The majority of personal injury lawsuits are based on negligence. A person may be found negligent if they failed to exercise the standard of care required by law.
In most situations, the standard of care required by law is the duty to exercise “reasonable care.” For example, every motor vehicle driver owes a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid harming others on the road. If a driver breaches that duty, the driver may be negligent.
Common examples of negligence include:
- A driver who runs a red light
- A driver who texts while driving
- A store owner who fails to clean up a spilled drink in a timely manner
- A doctor who operates on the wrong part of a patient’s body
What documents did the process server hand me?
To officially start a personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff needs to:
- File a complaint with the appropriate court, and
- Serve the defendant with a copy of the complaint and summons
The rules for service vary depending on the state, but in most cases, service will be completed via a process server.
So what exactly are these documents?
- Complaint. A complaint is a short statement of the facts giving rise to the lawsuit and the legal justification for the lawsuit.
- Summons. A summons is a legal document that informs the defendant that they’re being sued and provides instructions for responding to the lawsuit.
Why am I being sued?
You’re being sued because the plaintiff believes you’re responsible for their physical or emotional injuries. By filing a personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff is essentially asking the court to order YOU to pay THEIR damages.
Most people know why they’re being sued (even if they don’t agree with it). If you’re genuinely not sure why you’re being sued or who is suing you, take a look at the complaint.
The complaint provides all of the basic information about the lawsuit filed against you. Here are the primary sections of the complaint:
- Caption. At the top of the complaint, you’ll find the caption (sometimes called the “heading”). The caption states the name of the court in which the lawsuit was filed. The caption also lists the names of the parties involved in the lawsuit and their designation (i.e., plaintiff or defendant).
- Statement of facts. The body of the complaint contains a statement of facts (sometimes called “facts” or “allegations”), which are broken up into numbered paragraphs. The statement of facts includes the legally significant facts that help establish the plaintiff’s case. You probably won’t agree with all of the allegations. Don’t worry. You’ll have an opportunity to dispute these allegations.
- Relief. At the end of the complaint (typically the last paragraph), you’ll find a section called “relief” or “prayer for relief.” This section describes the relief the plaintiff is seeking from the court. To put it another way, this section describes what the plaintiff is asking the court to do (such as order you to pay the plaintiff a certain amount of money).
Each state has specific rules that govern the format and content of a civil complaint. As a result, a complaint in one state may look a little different from a complaint in another state. Nevertheless, all civil complaints contain the above sections (even if the order or terminology is slightly different).
How do I respond to a lawsuit?
After a complaint is filed with the court and served on the defendant, the defendant will need to “answer” the complaint. The answer is a written response to the plaintiff’s complaint.
Depending on the procedural rules in the state where the lawsuit was filed, your answer may contain:
- A general denial of all of the plaintiff’s allegations
- A denial of certain specific allegations
- An acceptance of certain specific allegations
- Separate claims
If you were served with a complaint, you need to respond to the complaint within a certain period of time. If you fail to respond to the complaint by filing an answer within a certain period of time, the court can issue a default judgment.
A default judgment is a binding judgment in favor of the plaintiff based on the defendant’s failure to take action.
How much time do you have to answer the complaint? This depends on your state and the nature of the lawsuit. In most states, you have somewhere between 14 and 90 days. The summons you received with the complaint will tell you exactly how many days you have to respond.
Should I contact my insurance company after being sued?
You should contact your insurance company immediately if there is any chance your insurance policy (whether it’s your health, homeowner’s, or automobile insurance policy) will cover the claim made against you. Be sure to give your insurance adjuster a copy of the lawsuit.
Your insurance company is required by law to defend any lawsuit containing allegations that are even potentially covered by your policy.
It’s important that you notify your insurer as soon as possible so they can step in and respond to the lawsuit before a default judgment is entered. What’s more, your failure to notify your insurer of a “covered event” in a reasonable amount of time may result in the denial of your claim.
Should I contact an attorney?
It’s probably a good idea to meet with an attorney if a lawsuit is filed against you. Most initial consultations are free.
Keep in mind that, even if your insurer defends you in the lawsuit, you’ll still be liable for anything above the policy limits.
Consider the following example:
You’re involved in a car accident that results in the other driver sustaining a traumatic brain injury. The injured driver sues you for $100,000.
Your auto insurance company determines that the accident is covered under your liability policy and agrees to defend you.
The case goes to trial, and the jury awards the other driver $100,000. However, your liability policy limit is $50,000. You are personally liable for the $50,000 that exceeds your policy limits.
Because of policy limits, it may be wise, depending on the damages sought, to hire your own attorney to monitor the case.