5 Steps to Follow if You Have Been Sued | Summons and Complaint
Updated: Jul 19
Nobody looks forward to being served with a summons and complaint. However, it is important that if you are served that you understand what action you must take and when you must take it. This post will provide an overview of what you need to know and do if you were served with a summons and complaint.
Scenario: Retail Trip and Fall
Imagine that you own a small retail shop. Four months ago a woman was browsing in your shop and tripped and fell over a box that one of your employees left on the floor while stocking the shelves. On the day of the accident, you immediately attended to the customer. You checked to see if she was injured and asked if she needed any medical attention which she declined. Although slightly embarrassed, the woman was very polite and continued to browse the store before leaving.
Four months go by and you have completely forgotten about the incident. That is, until the day that a process server comes to your store and hands you a summons and complaint. You quickly realize that you are being sued by the woman who fell at your store. You immediately panic. How could this be? You spoke to the woman when it happened and she told you she was fine. You saw her walk around the store and continued to shop before getting into her car and driving away. Now you are being sued for injuries that she allegedly sustained during the fall? Thoughts race through your mind. You are angry, confused, and frightened. You don’t know where to turn or what to do.
The situation described above happens more than you would care to believe. While we often can’t control our emotions or fear, there are a few things that you need to do Immediately.
5 Action Steps
Step One. Read the Complaint. While you might not be a lawyer you must read the complaint to see what is being alleged against you. For some, being served with a complaint is so stressful that the initial reaction is to put it aside and not read it. However, this is one of those "Eat that Frog" moments. You need to break through your fear and anxiety and force yourself to read the complaint so that you have an idea who is suing you and why.
Step Two. Do Your Homework. Once you have a general understanding of why you were being sued you should start gathering any evidence that you might have to aid in the defense of the case. This means any documents concerning the allegations including, contracts or agreements involving the plaintiff as well as copies of all emails, phone logs, text messages, social media posts, discussions, or any other communications. Depending upon the nature of the allegations you might have photographs or videos or audio recordings that can help you. By gathering up this information quickly, you will save yourself a good deal of aggravation later and be able to assist and attorney with formulating your defense.
Step Three. Hire an Experienced Litigation Attorney. Every complaint requires that you file an answer within a certain period. Under New Jersey law, you must file an answer to a complaint within 35 days from the date of service. The answer is a legal pleading that is drafted by an attorney and filed with the Court. In your answer, you will either admit or deny the allegations in the complaint. If you fail to file an answer within the required period you may be subject to a default judgment which means that the plaintiff would automatically win the case without having to prove anything.
While some people choose to represent themselves in civil litigation matters, it is generally not advisable. The rules of civil procedure are complicated and often confusing. A single misstep can result in serious consequences including, but not limited to, a default judgment being entered against you. Moreover, if the case proceeds to trial, self-represented litigants are at a significant disadvantage. The best way to protect your rights is to hire an experienced civil litigation attorney who will handle the case from start to finish and give you the best chance at a successful outcome.
It is important to note that if you own a business and your business is being sued that most states including New Jersey do not permit you to represent your business without an attorney. More specifically, Rule 1:21-1(c) prohibits:
a business entity other than a sole propriety from appearing or filing any paper “…in any action in any court of this State except through an attorney authorized to practice law in this State.” Therefore, corporations must be represented in court by counsel. See Globe Media Grp., LLC v. Cisneros, 403 N.J. Super. 574, 577 (App. Div. 2008); Olympic Indus. Park v. P.L., Inc., 208 N.J. Super. 577, 580-81 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 104 N.J. 453, 517 (1986). Rule 1:21(c) extends to all legal proceedings and, as such, requires corporations to be represented by counsel at mediations as well.
Step Four: Decide How You Want to Proceed. After you have hired an experienced civil litigation attorney, you will need to make some decisions about how you want to proceed with the case. Do you want to try and settle the case? Do you want to go to trial? These are important decisions that should be made after consulting with your attorney.
Settling a case means that you and the plaintiff reach an agreement as to how much money the plaintiff will receive in exchange for dismissing the lawsuit. This is often done through negotiation between the attorneys. If the parties are able to reach an agreement, it will be memorialized in a settlement agreement which will be filed with the Court.
If you and the plaintiff are unable to settle, the case will proceed to trial. This is a lengthy and expensive process. A trial can last for days or weeks and often requires the testimony of expert witnesses.
Step Five: Follow Your Attorney’s Advice. Once you have decided how you want to proceed, you must follow your attorney’s advice. Your attorney is experienced in handling these types of cases and knows what needs to be done to give you the best chance at a successful outcome. Trust your attorney and let him or her do the job you have hired them to do.
If you have been served with a complaint, you must take immediate action to protect your rights. By following these five steps, you will be in the best position to defend yourself against the allegations and achieve a favorable outcome.
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As with any legal issue, it is important that you obtain competent legal counsel before making any decisions about how to respond to a subpoena or whether to challenge one - even if you believe that compliance is not required. Because each situation is different, it may be impossible for this article to address all issues raised by every situation encountered in responding to a subpoena. The information below can give you guidance regarding some common issues related to subpoenas, but you should consult with an attorney before taking any actions (or refraining from acts) based on these suggestions. Separately, this post will focus on New Jersey law. If you receive a subpoena in a state other than New Jersey you should immediately seek the advice of an attorney in your state as certain rules differ in other states.