Have you been served a civil court summons? Being sued isn't something anyone wants to experience, but it happens. If you are named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit, you may have questions like, what is a civil lawsuit? Do I have to respond? How long do I have to file a response? How long will this take? Will I have to go to court?
Simply put, a civil lawsuit is a legal complaint made by one person or business, the plaintiff, against another, the defendant. In each case, the plaintiff attempts to hold the defendant accountable for a specific, non-criminal hardship or injury and often asks for "damages" or compensation.
The United States is in the world’s top five most litigious countries (Germany, Sweden, Israel, and Austria). In 2021, there were 260,298 civil lawsuits filed in the United States.
How Long Do I Have to File an Answer?
A lawsuit should never be ignored. If you receive a civil summons and complaint, take immediate action.
Always check the deadline listed on your court documents. The federal government and most states give defendants 30 days (from the day they are served) to file an answer, but other states require responses sooner.
You must file a written response before the deadline. If you do not respond before the deadline, or at all, the court may grant a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff. In most cases, the case is closed after a default judgment is awarded.
To pay any damages awarded to the plaintiff, the court may also impose penalties against the defendant, like garnishing your wages, levying your bank accounts, or putting liens on your property.
It is possible to appeal a default judgment. If there was a legitimate reason you were unable to respond in time, like you were improperly served, the complaint was improperly filed, an accident or mistake occurred, or the statute of limitation of the lawsuit passed, you can file a Motion to Set Aside Default Judgment.
How to File an Answer to a Personal Lawsuit
There are several steps you must take when responding to a civil lawsuit. It's important to review the claims made against you in the complaint, note the filing deadline, locate the response paperwork specific to your state or jurisdiction, and decide if a counterclaim or crossclaim is needed.
Review the Claim
Always take time to review the documents you have received. The court summons, and the complaint will allow you to identify the plaintiff, each of the claims made against you, and any requested damages or compensation. These documents will also list the court's address, filing deadlines, and other crucial information about your case.
Choose a Response
Defendants can respond to a complaint in one of several ways:
A "demurrer" can be used to challenge an aspect of the complaint, like if the plaintiff has filed the lawsuit in an improper venue or if you believe the plaintiff has failed to provide enough evidence against you. A demurrer is the least common response to a civil lawsuit and can only be used in select states.
A "motion to dismiss" can be used by a defendant to ask the court to dismiss the case. You must include a valid legal reason this case should not be heard.
An "answer" is the most common response to a civil lawsuit. This is your chance to address each of the charges made in the complaint. Each claim must be acknowledged. The court will assume you do not dispute any claim that is not acknowledged in your answer. Finally, you must include all of the evidence you have to support each of your denials. Any evidence not included in your response will not be allowed later.
If you need help deciding which response is best for you, it's best to consult a litigation attorney.
You must submit a written response to the court. Forms vary based on each state and the type of response you choose to submit. Some states will accept a typed or neatly handwritten document if it includes all of the required information (which can often be found on your jurisdiction's website). Please check your specific state's requirements before submitting documents.
Writing the Response
In your answer, address each claim made by the plaintiff. Keep your comments brief and to the point—one or two sentences will do. It's best to simply state the facts and back them up with specific evidence. Avoid making accusations or emotional appeals to the court in your response.
Your responses must be accurate and honest. When you sign your document, you do so under penalty of perjury.
Remember, if you do not acknowledge a claim, the court will assume it was intentional and that you do not intend to dispute it. You will not have another chance to deny any claims in the complaint later.
How Long Does a Lawsuit Take?
Lawsuits can last anywhere from a few days to a few years. In general, the intricacy of a case, the number of parties involved, and the amount of money at stake all contribute to the length of the litigation. If you and the plaintiff are open to arbitration (alternate dispute resolution), it might be easier, faster, and less costly to settle out of court. However, if no resolution can be met, you may have to proceed to trial.
Unfortunately, there are often unseen delays once lawsuits reach this stage. Elements like court scheduling, extended or additional discovery periods, and witness availability are a few common reasons trials stretch on.
Will My Lawsuit Go to Court?
In 2021, only .04% of civil cases in the United States went to court. However, you will go to court if you and the plaintiff cannot reach a settlement before your trial date. Each presents their case to either a jury or a judge (in what's called a "bench trial").
Some civil lawsuits meet the requirements of small claims court. Small claims court was created to settle disputes between litigants more quickly and cost-efficiently than traditional courts. Plaintiffs and defendants are required to represent themselves instead of hiring lawyers. The monetary cap in damages a plaintiff can sue for varies by state (anywhere from $3,000 to $20,000). It's best to check your state's cap on small claims, but if your case qualifies, small claims court can sometimes be your best bet.
How To Find a Litigation Attorney
The legal system can be challenging to navigate. Individual state proceedings vary wildly, and what is allowed in courts in one location is banned in others. Not to mention, if you are the defendant in a federal civil lawsuit, it is imperative that you follow federal legal statutes. It's best to check your local government's website or the federal government's website for the most accurate and up-to-date information before proceeding.
A litigation attorney knows the ins and outs of the courts and is often a practical and invaluable resource. To streamline your path through the system, find a litigation attorney on Expertise.com.
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