Civil Summonses and Complaints: What Are They and How Should You Respond?
What Is a Summons?
Have you or a loved one been served a legal document known as a summons? Unless you are familiar with legal proceedings, receiving these papers may feel confusing and raise various questions: What is a summons? What are the potential consequences? What do you do about it? Though these official forms can vary in their appearance and method of delivery, they have a common significance in civil lawsuits. Namely, these notices inform you of a new lawsuit involving you.
A court summons should include a few specific elements. Including the parties who are involved (the plaintiff and defendant), and the court that will handle the case. As well as a request for a response and the signature and seal of a clerk. In fact, in some situations, this document may even include a specific date and time. Informing you of when to appear in court. The purpose of a summons is simply to notify you that a lawsuit has begun. Note that it does not provide you with any specifics about the reasons underlying the lawsuit.
What Is a Complaint?
A complaint is another legal document that is usually served along with the summons. Whereas the court summons is a relatively brief notice, the complaint is often much more detailed. You can expect to find several distinct sections:
- Complaint: The form opens with a brief statement that identifies you as the defendant and names the plaintiff who filed the complaint.
- Jurisdictional Allegation: This section provides a rationale for why a specific court has jurisdiction, or legal power, to carry out the case. Jurisdiction is affected by various factors, such as where each party lives and how much money the plaintiff seeks as compensation.
- Statement of Claims: The plaintiff now lists specific claims that explain and provide evidence for their complaint. Each item in the list should be in layman’s terms and represent a single point. These points may include an event’s location, damages that occurred, who was present, or what a party’s intentions were.
- Demand for Relief: The final topic a complaint addresses is what the plaintiff seeks as compensation for the event that occurred. This may take the form of a specific sum of money or merely state a minimum dollar amount.
Examples of Common Complaints
There are numerous reasons a party may choose to file a complaint. In civil disputes, there are a few common explanations:
- Injury to Body or Property: A party may file a complaint if they feel their body or anything they own has been harmed as a result of another party’s actions, whether intentionally or unintentionally. These complaints are commonly called torts, though they can also take the form of class action lawsuits when a group of people are harmed due to the same cause. Specific injuries may include car accidents, slips and falls, a faulty product, assault or medical malpractice.
- Disagreements Over Property: Complaints can also be filed regarding property issues that do not involve harm. Frequently, these disputes involve debates about the legal owner of a piece of land.
- Unfulfilled Contracts: A party is also justified in issuing a complaint if they have proof that a legal contract has been violated. These may involve business matters, such as nondisclosure agreements or sale of goods contracts. Alternatively, a complaint may be in reference to unfulfilled obligations between a landlord and their tenant.
What Should You Do If You Receive a Summons and Complaint?
Step 1: Do Not Ignore It
Depending on the specific court involved in the case, you likely only have 20 or 30 days to respond. Note that it is critical that you provide an official answer to the court within the allotted time period. Not doing so could result in being judged as guilty by default. Which can make you responsible for paying the plaintiff the set amount.
Step 2: Determine How You Will Respond
There are a few options available to you regarding how you respond to a summons and complaint. First, you may file a motion to have the complaint dismissed by offering certain defenses. Any possible defenses may fall into two categories: affirmative or Rule 12b defenses. These counterarguments may focus on various issues:
- The court’s lack of jurisdiction
- Improper preparation or delivery of the summons and complaint
- Past the statute of limitations
- A critical party is left out of a complaint
- A previous settlement regarding the same matter
Second, you may provide an answer that replies to each specific item in the complaint’s statement of claims. You may either admit to, deny, or state a lack of knowledge about each item in this list.
Step 3: Prepare Your Defense and Attend Court
Unless you admitted to every item in the plaintiff’s statement of claims, you will likely need to attend court and will soon receive a specific date and time at which you must appear. Leading up to the trial, it is important to prepare a solid defensive argument. As soon as you can, it is wise to send a discovery request to the plaintiff. This will allow you to see any documentation or other forms of evidence that the plaintiff’s attorney will use to support their viewpoint in court. Having this knowledge helps you to secure evidence to counter each of these points.
Work With an Experienced Local Lawyer
As you can see, the legal proceedings in civil disputes are be incredibly complex. Even more so the consequences of responding improperly to an official summons or complaint may be severe.
For this reason, it is prudent to reach out to an experienced attorney. Immediately, or as soon as possible from when you are served legal papers. A lawyer may be able to help you determine the right way to respond. As well as how to compose your answer in a format that is acceptable to the court. A prompt and proper response is essential to handling this matter as swiftly and smoothly as possible.
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