Some legal terms mean exactly what they sound like they mean. One of these is the noun "summons." A summons is a legal document summoning you to make an appearance at court. If you don't obey, you can expect unpleasant things to happen. If the document is a criminal summons, calling you to answer for a crime you are charged with committing, failure to honor the summons can land you in jail. A civil summons means that the case is not criminal, but might be any type of non-criminal action, such as a personal injury case, a divorce case or a debt collection matter. If you ignore it, expect repercussions.
If you do not respond to a civil summons, the court can grant the other party judgment against you in the underlying case.
Summoned by a Summons
When someone wants to bring a lawsuit against another person, the first documents they file are a summons and complaint. The complaint describes what you are accused of doing wrong and the damage it caused. The summons tells you that you have a certain amount of time to respond. The summons doesn't summon you to appear in person at the court, but to make a "legal appearance," usually by filing a written response.
Your options for responding to a complaint depend on your state laws, but usually they boil down to two. You can file an answer admitting or denying the charges in the complaint. Or you can attack the validity of the complaint in some way, often with a document called a demurrer. The summons will tell you exactly how many days you have to file a response, a period that usually ranges from 20 to 30 days, depending on your state. Either of these responses, filed on time at the court, will have the effect of entering a legal appearance.
Failure to File
And if you don't? If you are given a summons and complaint in a civil lawsuit, the other party doesn't just go away. In fact, the other party probably goes on the offensive. That person points out to the court that you did not respond and asks the court to enter a default judgment against you.
Most civil cases end up either with a settlement agreement or with a judgment. But the type of judgment a court usually awards comes after each side has presented its case, and the fact finder has made a decision on which side prevails. A default judgment is different since the judge hears only one side, the side against you. By failing to respond to the summons, you have opted not to present your side, so the judgment is not going to be in your favor. A default judgment typically gives the other person everything requested in the complaint.