If you have reason to believe you may have been sued, even if you have not received a complaint and summons, you can check the records of the court in your jurisdiction, which is likely the city or county where you live. A case does not move forward until the plaintiff – the person initiating the case – has made a serious effort to notify you that you are being sued. Further, if you don't find out about the case until the judge already made a decision without your input, you may be able to have this default judgment thrown out. If so, the case will essentially start over.
Initiating a Lawsuit
The first step in bringing a lawsuit against someone is filing a complaint with the court, and then serving the complaint along with a summons on the defendant. A summons is a notice that lets you know that a complaint has been filed. It will also direct you to either respond to the complaint in writing within a certain number of days, such as 30 days, or attend a hearing on a particular date. The summons and complaint must be "served" on you, which typically means it must be delivered to you by someone other than the plaintiff – that is, the person who is suing you.
Methods of Service
Depending on the laws of your state and the facts of your case, the plaintiff may have a few options for carrying out service. Most commonly, the plaintiff must have the complaint personally served, or hand-delivered, to you. If after several attempts you cannot be located, substitute service may be an option, which means the complaint and summons may be left with another adult who lives with you. In some cases, such as small claims cases, the plaintiff may have the option to serve you the paperwork by having someone mail it to you. Another option is service by publication, where notice of the complaint is published in a local newspaper, but this is typically only allowed with permission of the court, and where the plaintiff cannot locate you despite reasonable efforts.
Checking the Court Records
Often, you can access records concerning open cases on the court's website, or at the courthouse. How you access case information depends on which court has the records. For example, in Washington, you may use the court's online database to access case summaries and hearing dates, but you must contact the clerk at the courthouse for the complete case history. By contrast, in Vermont you can view the entire case history online, but you must pay a fee if you want to access more than a summary of the case. A complete case history typically includes docket entries which detail every motion that has been filed in the case, information about the parties and the attorneys, hearing details, and all of the judge's decisions.
You may also be able to view the court's calendar, which is a schedule of trials and hearings being held at a particular courthouse, to ensure your name is not on any upcoming events. Although this also varies by court, you may find the court calendar on the website of the court in your county, and you may also contact the court clerk.
When You're Sued in Another Jurisdiction
One of the challenges of looking for information on a court's website happens when you're sued in another jurisdiction. For example, if you're from Ohio but you cause a traffic accident while you're vacationing in Florida, then you could be sued in the state of Florida. Since there isn't a central database of all courts across the country, you would have to check the Florida court websites for case information. To do a thorough job, you'd have to check with the courts of every state you have lived in, visited or done business in to find out if any lawsuits are filed against you.
Bear in mind, too, that a statute of limitations attached to most types of legal action. The person you injured in the Florida car accident, for instance, has four years to file and serve a personal injury claim against you. If he misses this time window, the legal claim dies.
Setting Aside Default
If you do not respond to a complaint filed against you or fail to show up at any scheduled court dates, the judge may enter a "default" judgment against you, which means the plaintiff will get what he asked for in his complaint even though you didn't give your side of the story. However, you can set aside a default judgment if you have "good cause." If you were never served with a complaint, or otherwise were not notified about the case due to no fault of your own, it is likely the judge will set aside the default judgment and you will have a chance to defend yourself. However, if you were purposefully avoiding service, it is unlikely you will be successful in setting aside the default.
Elizabeth Rayne earned her J.D. from Penn State University and has been practicing law since 2009, advising clients on issues ranging from employment law to nonprofit management. For two years, she served as a contributing editor for the "Vermont Environmental Monitor."