You just got served with a court summons. Now what? This guide will walk you through how to handle a lawsuit – by the numbers.
Getting served with a lawsuit isn’t typically something that most people have much experience with, whether you’re a private citizen, business owner or manager.
It’s very common for my business clients to tell me they’ve been in business for decades and never got sued. But it happens.
It’s like a car accident – it happens, whether you’re at fault or not, so it’s good to know what to do.
You get a knock on the door, or somebody shows up at your place of business, and says something like, “Hello, Ms. Jane Doe?”
That’s your name, so naturally, hoping you’ve just won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, you say “Yes, that’s me.”
Instead of the camera crew and balloons, this person (called a process server) hands you some documents and says, “I have some paperwork here for you. Have a good day.” And they leave.
You just got served. So what now? There are a lot of variables, of course, and every situation is different, but here’s a practical guide to what you should and shouldn’t do. \
Now, I certainly don’t want to kill the sense of drama here, but in case you’re pressed for time, just skip straight to step 9. It is simply amazing how often sensible folks screw this up and really do themselves greater harm. Even business owners who should know better manage to make the misstep of not taking action
1. Don’t kill the messenger!
Don’t hand the paperwork back to the process server, call them names, or refuse service. The process server is just doing his or her job, and they didn’t sue you.
Your actions are now under a microscope and part of what separates “winners” from “losers” is how they act.
That process server can be called to testify about what a jerk you were. More importantly, whether you accept service or not is usually irrelevant from a legal perspective. If you accept the documents, you’ve been served. If you throw a temper tantrum and throw the paper-work at the fleeing process server’s head, you’ve also been served. So accept the documents and evaluate the situation
2. Write the date and time on the top page of the paperwork.
The date you are served is what triggers response times and so forth, and your lawyer or insurance company will want to know what day you were served so they can calendar deadlines.
3. Review the documents you’ve been served with.
Typically it will include a document called a summons, and a document called the complaint. The summons is just a page or two that says what court the matter was filed in, typically says who the judge is, and will also usually say how long you have to file an Answer. In some courts, that’s as short as 20 days, so read the summons right away because you want to give others as much time as possible to prepare for the lawsuit, especially if it is a complex matter or a business-to-business lawsuit.
Sometimes that packet will also contain “discovery,” which is in the form of requests for documents or information. There are rules about how long you have to answer these requests that your attorney can help you sort out. Make a mental note of what all is there, but if you are not a lawyer, it may not be worthwhile to try to digest everything that’s there – not at this juncture. That may only stress you out more, especially if it is unfamiliar territory.
4. Were you expecting a lawsuit?
If so, you may already know who to call and what to do. If not, all the more important to contact a knowledgeable attorney as soon as possible. Go to step 9.
5. Is this a matter for which you have insurance that would cover a claim like this?
Is it a lawsuit related to alleged professional negligence? Is it a lawsuit related to a personal injury that occurred involving an insured vehicle you own? If so, immediately contact the agent who issued the policy. It is common for the agent to want you to send in a copy of the court summons and complaint so they can forward it to the claims department. Make sure they copy you on the communication and give you information for the claims department so you can follow up to ensure they received it and to start inquiring about the next steps.
Even if there is insurance, there are still lots of aspects that could be mishandled at this point, or the insurance company may even try to deny coverage or deny that they are obligated to hire an attorney to represent you. So even under this scenario, you should still strongly consider contacting your own attorney to ensure that someone is truly looking out for your best interests! Go to step 9.
6. Are you completely befuddled?
Skip to step 9.
7. Find the right attorney.
Easier said than done, but this step will depend on how sophisticated you are when it comes to hiring lawyers. If you are a business owner, even a small business owner, hopefully you have already used the services of an attorney for contract drafting and general advice. If not, that may in part explain why you’re getting sued. A good business attorney’s focus should always be helping to prevent lawsuits, but that’s a different topic for another time.
What type of matter is it that you’ve been sued over?
That may provide you some insight as to who to look for. The best approach is usually to contact any attorney you know and ask them to refer you to someone who handles the type of law that is implicated in your lawsuit. If you have a sense of what type of attorney you are looking for, just do an online search through Google or Bing, and see who comes up.
Check out their website and see if it lends you confidence that they know what they’re doing. What’s that you say? You want to just represent yourself because you want to save some money? Great idea. Sort of like an attorney doing their own electrical work to save money on an electrician. Works fine until you touch that one wire that you didn’t know you weren’t supposed to touch, but, see Step 9. Or you may skip 9 and go back to 7.
8. Handle the Matter Yourself.
Or proceed as what is called “Pro Se.” Some folks can do it, and it’s not necessarily a horrible idea for disputes involving only money, and less money than you’re ok losing. In fact, it even makes sense for many businesses, especially in terms of collection matters under $20,000 where you are in Small Claims Court. They typically aren’t complicated cases, and if you don’t have attorney fee provisions in your contacts, or you think the party whom you’re collecting from is insolvent, you may, in certain limited circumstances, be allowed to represent yourself.
Generally, corporations must have attorneys (which includes LLC’s, and other entities).
When it comes to matters that are “mission critical,” or could become that if things go south, then you should not try to represent yourself. You know what they say about people representing themselves: they have a fool for a client. If it involves significant sums of money or complicated issues, especially issues that may be critical to what you or your business does economically, then you should not subject that to your own personal learning curve.
Just as well-informed attorneys don’t typically try to design commercial buildings and instead leave that to architects, you probably shouldn’t be trying to do what takes even the best attorneys three years of intensive schooling and 10 or more years of experience to even begin to master. My advice: see step 9.
9. Contact an attorney!
The best option, especially for businesses, it to contact an attorney with whom you already have a relationship, such as general or corporate counsel. Not sure who to call?
Fill out the form on the right and we will be happy to put you in touch with an attorney – whether he or she is from our firm or another reputable firm.