We, as Americans, can be rightfully proud that we live in a country where the Rule of Law prevails. If two or more persons have a dispute that cannot be resolved through reasoned discussion, a civil suit may be filed and the rights and responsibilities of the parties will be determined in accordance with the prevailing law. If someone has been wronged at the hand of another, there is a remedy available and a civilized means to seek redress, without resorting to trial by combat or vigilante tactics.
While it is important that everyone has access to the civil justice system, there are those who believe that we currently live in an overly-litigious society; that there are too many lawsuits being filed; and that many of the suits filed are frivolous or filed for improper purposes. Some suits have merit; others do not; but the only way to properly determine the merits of a case is to defend the suit. If you are sued and do not defend, you waive many valuable rights and will lose by default. It is not pleasant to be sued, and it may be expensive to defend a lawsuit, but if you are sued you should always seek professional advice in order to understand and protect your rights.
You may receive notice of the suit in different ways. You may receive a Summons in the mail; you may be handed the papers in person; the suit papers may be left taped to your front door; or they may be left with another person on your behalf, at your residence or sometimes at your place of business. However you receive notice of the suit, remember that you must respond or you risk waiving valuable rights. Do not think that you can hide or ignore the suit; you do so at your peril.
If you may have insurance that might cover the suit, immediately deliver a copy of the papers to your insurance agent or company, or send a copy by at least certified mail, return receipt requested. Most insurance policies have a clause that requires you to give immediate notice to the insurance company if you are sued. Your failure to do so may allow the insurance company to disclaim coverage. In other words, if you breach the policy by not giving proper notice, the company could refuse to provide an attorney to defend you, or refuse to make payment on any judgment rendered against you. (If you have insurance, and properly notify your insurance company of the suit, it will appoint an attorney to defend you, at no cost to you.) All owners of automobiles, trucks and motorcycles are required by law to have insurance in the State of New York. Most homeowners and business owners have insurance. Many renters do as well. Professional liability coverage is available to many licensed professionals; some corporate board members and some volunteers have coverage; and many employees are covered for some claims by insurance maintained by their employer. If there is an insurance company that might extend coverage, be sure to notify it immediately that you have been sued. Do not hesitate because you are embarrassed; or are not sure that you have coverage; or because you believe that the suit is without merit. If you have no insurance coverage, you will be notified, in writing. But if you have coverage and do not notify the insurance company, you will lose valuable rights.
If you do not have coverage, bring the papers to your attorney as soon as possible. It is wise to consult with your attorney even if you do have coverage, as the attorney can help you to navigate through the process and ensure that your rights are protected. All lawsuits must be answered within a specific period of time. In some lower courts you will be directed in the Summons to appear in person in court, at a specified date and time. In most cases, you or your attorney must respond in writing by sending appropriate responsive papers to the court or to the attorney for the person suing you. This generally must be done within either 20 or 30 days of the date on which you were served with the Summons.
You probably have the right to defend yourself if you so choose. Some people choose to do so, if they have no insurance, when they are sued for a minor amount in a Small Claims Court (where the maximum monetary jurisdiction is often $3,000.00). If you cannot afford an attorney, there may be some type of legal aid society or other program that might be able to provide you with an attorney at little or no cost, under certain circumstances. You may be able to find an attorney who will take your case and charge no fee (this is often called pro bono). You may call your local Bar Association to ask about such programs.
Defending civil lawsuits not only requires knowledge of the substantive law, but also knowledge of the court system and judicial procedures which must be followed. If you are sued, you should consult with an attorney immediately. Only by doing so can you learn of your rights and options, and protect your rights.
I've been sued! (Now what do I do?)
The Law Office of Alan R. Lewis, Esq., is pleased to present periodic statements of Points of Law for the general edification or our clients and friends. We will publish new articles every few months, so please visit our website for new articles periodically. This is not intended to be legal advice, and may on occasion be only the opinion of the author. If you have a legal question, you are encouraged to consult with an attorney of your choosing, who can advise you appropriately based upon the particular circumstances of your situation.