You've been sued. What's next?

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 your options.

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 personally.

Other Options

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, neutral mediator.

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 these—known as alternative dispute resolution—may 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.

Next Week

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 miltzall@qis.net.

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