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Noteworthy

What to Do When You’ve Been Served with a Complaint

By Jennifer Franks, Esq., December 10, 2016

Whether you’re an individual or a business owner, learning that you have been sued can be overwhelming and scary news. While only your attorney can provide you with legal advice for your case, the following information may help you avoid problems down the road while navigating your lawsuit.

What is a lawsuit?

A lawsuit is a civil legal action brought in court. Typically, one party is suing another party for money or other property. The party who is suing is usually referred to as “the plaintiff,” while the person being sued is referred to as “the defendant”. A plaintiff or defendant may be an individual, a business, a government agency or another entity. In some cases, a lawsuit may involve multiple plaintiffs and multiple defendants.

In most circumstances, a lawsuit is initiated via the filing of what is referred to as a “complaint”. A complaint is a legal document which generally states why the plaintiff is suing the defendant. The plaintiff is responsible for serving the complaint on the defendant, which typically involves a sheriff hand delivering the legal papers to you. This ensures that the defendant is aware of the lawsuit being brought against him or her.

I’ve been served – now what?

First, make a note about how service was made. Who accepted service? What was the date? Was the individual that accepted service served by sheriff, mail or otherwise? This information may be useful for your attorney or other representative down the road.

Next, review the complaint. While this might seem like an obvious step, you will want to glean a general idea why you are being sued and the matters involved to determine your appropriate course of action. Complaints, like all legal matters, are extremely time-sensitive and there is a brief deadline to respond, so it is imperative that you take action as soon as possible to effectively defend the claim. Depending on the court, the deadline to respond is typically between 20 to 30 days. An attorney who is familiar with your case will best be able to advise you regarding the appropriate time frame.

If you believe that the claim may be covered by an insurance policy, you should contact your insurance carrier immediately. Your insurance provider will be able to advise you whether the claim is covered, and may assign an attorney to represent you in the claim. Again, this is also time sensitive, as your insurance policy often contains reporting requirements that may obligate you to report the claim within a specific time frame.

If your claim is not covered by an insurance policy or you are not assigned an attorney, you should consult with an attorney as soon as possible. When looking for an attorney, it is best to consult an attorney who specializes in or is familiar with the type of matter that you are dealing with. Most county and state bar associations have lawyer referral programs and can provide a free referral to an attorney who practices in the area(s) of law in which you need legal assistance.

What else can I do?

A crucial element of litigation is discovery. Discovery is the court-mandated exchange and review of all documents relevant to the case, other than those materials which may be protected by attorney-client privilege or other legal protections.

Plaintiffs and defendants have an obligation to preserve all documents and materials that may be relevant to the case. This obligation extends to electronic materials, such as e-mails, photographs and any electronically stored data. The requirement to preserve electronic materials is especially important to note for businesses which are being sued, as businesses may have set retention policies that will need to be amended to ensure that no relevant data or materials are lost.

Beyond fulfilling your obligation to preserve materials, it may also be useful to begin collating and organizing the relevant documents as soon as possible. Your attorney and/or insurance provider may request certain documents, and your attorney will inevitably request all relevant documents once the discovery phase of litigation begins. However, the sooner you provide your attorney will all information and materials relevant to the claim, the sooner your attorney will be able to determine the best course of action for you or your business to defend or resolve the matter.

You may also want to make notes for yourself. Litigation often lasts for years, and the pertinent information and facts will be freshest in your mind when you first learn of the lawsuit. It may be helpful to make a list of witnesses who you believe may have some helpful information for your case.

What should I avoid?

Other than reporting your claim to your insurance provider, it is best to avoid discussing the lawsuit with anyone other than your attorney. Conversations with family, friends and co-workers are not privileged, so the substance of your conversation may come up during the course of litigation. If anyone attempts to discuss the lawsuit with you, make a note of the conversation, when it occurred and what was said.

Finally, avoid letting the stress or anxiety that may result from learning that you have been sued affect how you handle the matter. There is nothing that you can do at this moment to change the fact that you have been sued. However, by being proactive and addressing the lawsuit immediately, you can minimize the risk of many common problems and begin the process of resolving the matter.


This article does not provide legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. Such information is intended only for general informational purposes and you should not rely upon such information. If you need legal advice or representation, please contact an attorney directly.

Walsh Pancio, LLC Attorneys at Law
2028 N. Broad Street, Lansdale, PA 19446
Phone: 215-368-8660    Fax: 215-368-7990    info@walshpancio.com

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