If you received a Summons and Complaint in North Carolina naming you as a defendant, then you have been sued.  This is not a fun experience.  It is costly in terms of time and money.  It is stressful.  But it is much better to deal with it immediately than to pretend it has not happened.  Like many problems, ignoring a lawsuit will make it worse.  This is a brief summary of steps to take if you have been sued.

  1. The Basics of a Lawsuit

    In a lawsuit (technically, a “civil action”), the plaintiff is the person (or business) who started the lawsuit and is demanding some type of relief from the defendant in a document usually called a Complaint.  In many lawsuits, the relief demanded by the plaintiff is money damages.  However, other types of relief demanded include stopping illegal conduct by the defendant (for example, trespassing) or the return of property to the plaintiff, to name just two.  The defendant must respond to the lawsuit in writing in a document usually called an Answer.  You will know that you (or your business) have been sued when you receive a Summons and Complaint by registered or certified mail, mail with signature confirmation, designated delivery service (i.e., FedEx), or personally from the Sheriff’s Office or a private process server.

  1. Take Action Immediately

    Some people faced with a lawsuit do nothing.  This does not end well.  The Summons in North Carolina state court says it quite clearly: “A Civil Action Has Been Commenced Against You!”  When you have been sued, there are strict time deadlines that require you to file a written response with the Court and serve it on the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s attorney.  If no written response is filed and served, the plaintiff may ask the Court to enter a default against you for the relief demanded in the lawsuit.  Again, the state court Summons says it clearly:  “If you fail to answer the complaint, the plaintiff will apply to the Court for the relief demanded in the complaint.”

  1. Consult With An Attorney

    Quickly speak with a licensed North Carolina attorney who handles litigation matters.  It is best not to “play lawyer” yourself when you have been sued.   People understandably react emotionally to being sued and can take an “all or nothing” approach (“I don’t owe the plaintiff anything – they’ve made some kind of mistake.” or “I know I owe the money, but the plaintiff won’t be able to make me pay.”).  The problem with this approach is that lawsuits use legal jargon and phrases that are not commonly used outside of the court system.  As a result, the Complaint usually needs to be interpreted so that you can understand what the plaintiff is actually demanding and, most importantly, how you can best deal with the situation.  You may very well have legal defenses that can lessen or even eliminate the damages being claimed by the plaintiff (for example, the plaintiff’s claim may be barred by the statute of limitations).  In addition, in some cases you may have a counterclaim (also known as a countersuit) that you can file against the plaintiff for your own damages.  An attorney will be able to advise you about the time deadlines, your options, and an overall strategy for dealing the lawsuit.

  1. Notify Your Insurance Company

    There are some types of lawsuits that contain claims that may be covered by a defendant’s insurance policy, including coverage for the costs of a defense attorney.  The defendant – the person or business covered by the policy – should notify their insurance company in writing as soon as possible after learning that a lawsuit has been filed.  Again, waiting just makes things worse.

Dealing with a lawsuit is a serious matter.  The Supreme Court of North Carolina stated that “[a] suit at law is not a children’s game, but a serious effort on the part of adult human beings to administer justice.”  Wiles v. Welparnel Construction Company, Inc., 295 N.C. 81, 243 S.E.2d 756 (1978).  By dealing with the situation quickly and consulting with a licensed attorney (and your insurance company) you can make the best of a difficult situation.

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