Timeline of How to Defend a Lawsuit
Step 1: A Complaint Gets Filed Against You
When you are served a complaint and summons, either personally by a process server or through the mail, an individual or group has filed a lawsuit against you, and this process becomes known as litigation.
You will have a specified time frame to file an answer. An answer is a document that must be filed with the court that responds in writing to the allegations set forth in the complaint. It will have the same caption as the complaint and will be filed with the same court.
It is wise to seek the advice of an attorney before filing an answer. Some defenses, such as Failure to State a Claim and Statute of Limitations, should be raised in the answer, or they may be deemed waived by the Court. These and other defenses are listed in each state’s Rules of Civil Procedure. While the summons will state the time frame necessary for a response, the answer typically needs filed within a 20- to 45-day time frame depending on local court rules.
If you fail to answer the plaintiff’s complaint, they will file a motion for Entry of Default Judgment. If the judge approves the motion, a formal Default Judgment will be entered, ordering you to pay damages. You will have a specified time period to pay the judgment or dispute it.
If a Motion to Dismiss claim is denied, the Discovery process will continue. Discovery allows for each party to request information including answers to questions and documents. Such requests will come in the form of Admissions (asking you to deny or admit stated facts), Interrogatories (detailed questions concerning the facts of the case) and Production (asking the opposing party to produce relevant documents).
Failing to respond to Discovery in a timely or factual manner can lead to severe legal consequences. However, the opposing counsel will typically file a Motion to Compel. A Motion to Compel asks the judge to enforce the Discovery requests against the opposing party. It is important to answer Discovery in a truthful and timely manner, even if you do not agree with the information or allegations the opposing party is making.
If the lawsuit process continues, typically a party will file a Motion for Summary Judgment. A Motion for Summary Judgment can be brought by either party and asks the Court to make a ruling based on the information acquired in the case as of that point. If the evidence is strong for either party, and the applicable law clearly supports one party’s claim, then a judge will make a ruling in the case based on the motion.
Most lawsuits then proceed into mediation, where a settlement is hopefully reached between the parties. Typically this occurs after each party meets with a mediator, who reviews the facts of the case in an independent manner and makes a recommendation. Courts will often require that parties participate in mediation before trial to try to reach a settlement. A settlement reached in mediation will be binding on the parties. Courts hear thousands of claims per year, and this is one way to remedy the conflict without having to enter a courtroom.
If mediation is not successful, or the case goes directly to trial, a judge or jury will make a ruling and enter a judgment at the close of all evidence and argument. Trials can often take several days, require expert witness testimony (even in civil trials), and cost several thousands of dollars. It is important that you have a strong claim when bringing a case to the trial process.
After the judge enters a judgment, the losing party will have to pay on the judgment. Many parties fail to pay the judgment. Upon failure to act or pay on the judgment, the winning party may need to enforce the judgment. This process requires that the party file a Petition for Contempt, have the opposing party served by a Sheriff, and submit proof of service to the Clerk of Court to obtain a Court hearing. The Court will then use legal means necessary to obtain the judgment, including garnishment of wages and other income.