In the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a person sued in a civil action has 20 days to answer after the complaint and notice are served. If the defendant – the person sued for committing a civil wrong – wants to defend themselves against the claims, they must enter a written appearance personally or by attorney.
They must also file in writing their defenses or objections to the claims. If the defendant fails to answer, the case can proceed without them, and without any further notice, the court can enter a default judgment against them for money or other relief.
Using an Answer as a Defense
A defendant typically uses an answer to deny the claims of the plaintiff, the person who filed the lawsuit. The defendant may also raise affirmative defenses that state that the defendant is not liable because of new evidence or a material fact that was not introduced in the complaint.
For example, if a plaintiff says the defendant took an item of their personal property, the defendant may raise the affirmative defense that they purchased the item with the plaintiff and share ownership of it with them.
A defendant can also use an answer to make a counterclaim, a cause of action that the defendant has against the plaintiff when they file the answer. An answer must be written and conform to the requirements set forth in the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure (PA.R.C.P.), the court rules which govern how Pennsylvania courts handle civil cases.
Using the Statute of Limitations as a Defense
Another example of an affirmative defense is that the statute of limitations – the amount of time a plaintiff has to file a lawsuit – has already passed.
Preliminary Objections to a Civil Claim
Preliminary objections are legal issues that a party raises in a civil case that must be determined before the trial judge proceeds to the main case in the docket. A preliminary objection allows a party to explain to the court that there is a problem based on a point of law that must be decided before the main case proceeds.
For example, if the plaintiff – the person bringing the lawsuit – sued in the wrong county, the defendant could raise this as a preliminary objection before the court considers the matter. A party has 20 days to respond in writing to preliminary objections.
Waiving Defenses and Objections
A party waives all defenses and objections that it fails to present by preliminary objection, answer or reply. The exception is that a party does not waive a number of certain defenses, including:
- Defense is not required to be pleaded
Rule 1030(b), which relates to new matters. Defense of failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, meaning the court cannot resolve the plaintiff’s concern. Defense of failure to join an indispensable party, meaning a party who must be joined in the lawsuit for the court to issue a ruling. Objection of failure to state a legal defense to a claim. Defenses of failure to exercise or exhaust a statutory remedy and adequate remedy at law.
Legal Terms in Civil Court
Pleadings are allegations or counter allegations made by a party to the suit. A responsive pleading is a formal declaration made by a party in reply to a prior declaration by an opponent.
An answer is an example of a responsive pleading. A court of common pleas is a state trial court. The courts of common pleas are organized into 60 judicial districts in Pennsylvania.
A new matter is a newly claimed fact or legal issue that a defendant or responding party brings up beyond denying the allegations in the complaint. For example, if a defendant accused of assault asserts that the plaintiff damaged their personal property, this would be a new matter.
Using a Praecipe in the Name of the Court
A praecipe, or command in Latin, is a writ or written command in the name of the court that orders the defendant to perform an act or make a statement about why inaction is not appropriate.
For example, a praecipe for writ of possession may be used by a landlord to enforce a judgment for possession of commercial or real property. A landlord may use a praecipe for writ of possession in Pennsylvania to regain possession of property in an eviction proceeding.
- Many courts in Pennsylvania have self-help centers that will assist a defendant in filing an answer to a complaint.
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.