How to Respond to a Civil Complaint in Pennsylvania

By Teo Spengler - Updated March 15, 2018

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Most lawsuits begin when someone prepares and files with the court a legal document called a complaint. The next step is to have a copy given to the person sued. If you've been handed a civil complaint in Pennsylvania, you have a limited time to respond to it, and choices to make about how to respond.


Respond to a civil complaint in Pennsylvania by filing an answer, with or without affirmative defenses, or attack the complaint by filing preliminary objections or a demurrer.

Civil Complaint in Pennsylvania

If someone wants to sue you in Pennsylvania, he gets the ball rolling by filing a civil complaint. This can be a court form that he fills in with the facts, or it can be a written document that sets out what his claim is against you. After it is filed, he has to get a third party to personally hand it to you, called personal service. The person who does this signs a declaration of service stating exactly when and where the document was served and files it with the court. You have 20 days to to file a response to the complaint.

If you do not file a response to the complaint within the time frame, the person suing you can ask the court for a default judgment. The court may grant a default judgment if there is proof that you were served with the document but failed to file any response.

Possible Responses to Civil Complaint

Assuming that you want to avoid having a default judgment entered against you, you need to file a response to the civil complaint. You have two choices: either answer the complaint or else attack it.

Most people respond to a complaint by filing an answer. An answer must be in writing and it must admit or deny the charges made in the complaint. You set out the answer in paragraphs numbered to correspond with the complaint, stating the facts and law you rely on in admitting or denying each one. You can also include any affirmative defenses you are making. These are basically objections to the complaint that must be pleaded, including matters such as the charge that too much time has passed since the events and therefore the matter is barred by the statute of limitations.

Your other choice, when responding to a complaint in Pennsylvania, is to attack the complaint with preliminary objections. You can make these on any of these grounds:

  • Lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter of the action or the person of the defendant 
  • Improper venue or improper form or service of a writ of summons or a complaint
  • Failure of a pleading to conform to law or rule of court or inclusion of scandalous matter
  • Insufficient specificity in a pleading
  • Legal insufficiency of a pleading
  • Lack of capacity to sue, nonjoinder of a necessary party or misjoinder of a cause of action
  • A pending prior action or agreement for alternative dispute resolution
  • Failure to exercise or exhaust a statutory remedy
  • Full, complete and adequate non-statutory remedy at law

What Happens Next

You must prepare your answer or preliminary objections and file them with the court. You also have to serve them on the other party. If the other party has an attorney, you can give your response to the attorney instead.

If you have filed an answer, both parties can begin exchanging evidence in discovery. If you filed preliminary objections, the court must rule on these first, and may give the other side an opportunity to file an amended complaint to remedy the issues.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. 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 M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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