You've been sued. What's next?
- By Milt x_Zall
- Oct 05, 2001
It's not unusual to be sued. Thousands of people in the United States are
named in lawsuits every day. The suits may result from a slip and fall on
your sidewalk, a fender-bender car accident or just a misunderstanding about
the payment of a debt.
If you are sued, it's important to know what's involved and to understand
How a Lawsuit Begins
When someone files a lawsuit, they must formally notify everyone being
sued. Delivering a document known as a summons usually does this. The lawsuit,
or complaint, is generally included with the summons.
In most jurisdictions, a sheriff or a process server delivers a summons
in person to the individual being sued or to someone in the person's household.
Sometimes, especially in lawsuits involving smaller matters, a summons may
be served through the mail, usually by registered or certified mail that
requires a signed receipt indicating it was delivered.
The summons tells the person being sued what he or she must do to protect
their rights to defend the suit. It usually includes the deadline for filing
an answer to the complaint. The complaint tells the person being sued why
the action was brought against him or her and what the demands are.
Having a Lawyer Provided for You
Sometimes a lawyer is provided to the person being sued at no personal
expense. For example, if you are sued because you were in an auto accident,
your insurance company will probably provide a lawyer to protect your interests.
(You must contact your insurance company to find out if it will provide
a lawyer and to give the company notice of a possible claim.)
If you are sued as an officer or director of a charity or corporation,
that organization may provide a lawyer for you. However, you must remember
that you are responsible for any suit in which you are named. Therefore,
you must immediately inform the agency or organization about the suit.
You need to cooperate with the lawyer selected for you, but you should
also consider the possibility that the lawyer provided for you may have
a conflict of interest, meaning that he or she is responsible to the organization
and the organization's interests may be different from yours. If you believe
there is a conflict of interest, you should consult a lawyer that you select
Many lawsuits result from misunderstandings and can be resolved through
alternatives to litigation in court. You may be able to talk to the person
suing you and perhaps negotiate an agreement. Or you may be able to resolve
the matter through the use of mediation, using the services of a skilled,
Many communities have neighborhood dispute resolution centers providing
these services free or at low cost. You may want to consult a lawyer to
help you determine whether options such as theseknown as alternative
dispute resolutionmay be suitable in your case.
Remember, though, that if you seek an alternative to the lawsuit, you
still are being sued and you must protect your interests by filing your
response and appearing in court. This is particularly important if your
negotiations outside of court are unsuccessful.
Looking for a lawyer.
Zall, Bureaucratus columnist and a retired federal employee, is a freelance
writer based in Silver Spring, Md. He specializes in taxes, investing, business
and government workplace issues. He is a certified internal auditor and
a registered investment adviser. He can be reached at [email protected].