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.
What is a Civil Case?
A civil case is a lawsuit that one person or business brings against another. It usually deals with things like non-payment of debt and negligence acts that result in property damage or injury to another person, like a car accident. When someone files a civil lawsuit, they're generally looking for money to compensate them for something that has gone wrong. It's important to understand that a civil lawsuit is not the same as a criminal lawsuit. The police will not be involved, and no one is going to be arrested if they don't show up to the court hearing. There are, however, some potentially serious consequences if you ignore the court paperwork.
What Does Receiving a Summons Mean?
When someone wants to bring a lawsuit against another person, they file a complaint with the court, and the court clerk issues a summons. 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 something called a demurrer, usually in the form of a motion to dismiss the case. 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.
What Happens If You Do Not Respond?
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.
Many civil cases end up either with either 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 doesn't hear your side and rules against you anyway. 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.
Read More: How to Respond to an Out of State Summons
If you do not respond to a civil summons, the court can grant the other party judgment against you in the underlying case. This means the other side will automatically win. Failing to honor a criminal summons, by contrast, could lead to your arrest and even time in jail.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.