You’ve just been served. A lawsuit is coming down the pike and you have to decide what to do next. Maybe you have a lawyer you work with regularly, but maybe you don’t. You’re simply wondering what to do next. Anxiety and stress are understandable, but take a deep breath and just follow these basic steps on what to do if you’re sued.
Know the deadlines
Everyone will react a little bit differently to being served with a formal complaint. Some people might rush to respond right away; others might hope the problem will go away. Both extremes are a mistake.
Avoidance is the obvious problem—if you don’t respond by the court-ordered deadline, you’re likely to have a default judgment entered against you. This means you lost without ever even telling your side of the story.
The flip side is a little more complicated. Defendants usually get at least 20 business days to respond to a complaint, perhaps longer depending on the jurisdiction and nature of the case. Take all of the time that you’re given and use it to your advantage.
Contact a lawyer
Finding a lawyer is a natural first step. Depending on how much money is at stake, you may also want to talk with a debtor lawyer. If you stand to lose a significant amount, you need to find out what legal options are available to preserve your assets.
Next, get to work on preserving all your evidence. If this is a case where there’s a paper trail involved, make sure your lawyer gets all relevant documents—including any emails that are germane to the case.
Part of preserving evidence is preserving your memory. Start writing down anything you believe is important. Maybe there’s a relevant incident that’s undocumented anywhere and it will be a question of your word against theirs in the courtroom.
Furthermore, maybe this is a case that has the potential to drag out for a year. What will look better for the jury—a journaled recollection close to the time of the incident or a vague memory a year after the fact? Write everything down and forward it to your lawyer as you journal.
This is also the time to notify any insurance carriers that will be involved in covering your losses. It’s absolutely necessary to inform your carrier as soon as the lawsuit is filed. They have a vested interest in reducing your liability and failing to notify them right away might result in a loss of coverage.
Notify any and all insurance carriers
Any insurance carrier that provides coverage needs to know about the claim. Sometimes your homeowner’s policy or your car insurance policy will cover things that you didn’t think they would handle. You have an obligation to notify your insurance carrier as soon as you know that a claim has been filed. Failure to provide prompt notification and cooperate with the carrier to reduce exposure may cause you to lose coverage.
If there is any doubt as to whether the carrier will cover the situation, you should consult with an independent lawyer—separate from whatever lawyer the carrier may provide to you. Consulting with an independent lawyer can help you make sure the carrier does provide coverage. This also provides you with a competent lawyer or claims adjuster and an appropriate defense.
Finally, this is a time where restraint in your communications is essential. Emotions may be high, but an angry email or text message sent now can be very damaging in court. Keep your communications with your lawyer—where confidentiality applies—and your spouse—where spousal privilege applies—private. For the rest of the world, tighten up and maintain silence.