Civil lawsuits come in many shapes and forms, but they’re all basically cases that fall outside a criminal courtroom. The list can include personal injury suits, collection suits from creditors, landlord-tenant disputes and even divorce. These legal actions all share a common denominator -- they begin by having you served with a summons and complaint that lets you know you’re being sued. The ball is in your court when this happens, and there’s a significant downside if you don’t respond.
When a defendant -- the person being sued -- doesn’t answer a civil lawsuit, the court assumes he doesn’t want to involve himself in the proceedings. If you don’t respond, the plaintiff -- the person or company suing you -- will likely ask the judge to enter a default judgment against you. The court then schedules a hearing. If you don’t show up to that, it effectively tells the judge you have no defenses or argument against the allegations the plaintiff made against you. A default judgment typically gives the plaintiff everything he asked for in his complaint.
The judge can’t give the plaintiff more than he asked for in his complaint. His damages are usually limited to what he claimed you owe him in his lawsuit.
- Although specific rules vary by state and even by county, many courts require that you submit a written answer to a civil lawsuit complaint. You can’t just turn up in court hoping to plead your case there. You should be served with a notice of the scheduled default hearing if you fail to answer the complaint in writing.
- If the plaintiff gets a default judgment against you for monetary damages -- such as a balance owed on a credit card -- he can then use the judgment to garnish your wages or bank accounts, or even place liens against your property.
What to Do
A default judgment is easily avoided by filing a written response with the court. This doesn’t mean the judge won’t ultimately rule against you after hearing the facts of the case, but at least you’ll have an opportunity to defend yourself. Many states make the necessary forms available on their websites. If you decide to write your own, consider taking it to an attorney or legal aid for review before you file it with the court to make sure you’ve gotten everything right. The complaint will usually have numbered paragraphs. You can usually include matching numbers in your response, stating after each whether you admit or deny the allegations made in the corresponding paragraph.
You’ll have a limited period of time to file your answer with the court. The exact number of days should appear on the summons you received. If you can’t find this information, call the court. Deadlines are usually anywhere from 20 to 30 days in most states. You must make sure the plaintiff receives a copy of your response when you file it with the court.
The Ohio State Bar Association warns about providing too much detail in your written answer. If you make a mistake, such as by admitting to wrongdoing because you didn’t fully understand the allegation, it becomes a part of the case record and may be difficult to correct at the hearing. Your written response can just let the court know you want to be involved in the lawsuit and give a brief indication of the points you want to make when you get to court.
If the court enters a default judgment against you because you didn’t respond or didn’t respond in time, seek legal help. It’s sometimes possible to have a default judgment overturned if you can prove you had a good reason for not responding. Maybe you were in the hospital or out of the country and didn’t receive a copy of the lawsuit in time. You have a somewhat longer period of time to file this request with the court, usually from six months to a year after the judge issues the default judgment.