What To Do When You Have Been Sued In Civil Court


While popular media tends to focus on criminal courts, which are courts that handle legal infractions that can be punished with jail time, the vast majority of litigation occurs in civil courts. Chances are that if you are ever involved in a legal disagreement, it will be handled in a civil court case.

Civil courts are the courtrooms that handle disagreements between two or more people. There are many different types of disagreements that are litigated by civil courts, including breach of contract, divorce, personal injury, probate contestations, and so on. Typically, the outcome of a civil case determines whether one party is obligated to provide payment or hand over physical property to another party (though non-financial matters can also be decided, such as child custody).

If you are ever sued by another party, it will be a civil court that decides the matter. Of course, that raises the question:

What do you do when you’re sued in civil court?

You’ll know that you’re being sued if documents are delivered to you–in person or by mail–which indicate that a complaint has been lodged against you, and that you are due in court on a certain date (these documents are referred to as a complaint and a summons). Typically, the complaint will identify who has filed a lawsuit against you, why they are suing you, and what damages they are suing for (a certain amount of money, or specific physical property).

First of all, if you’ve been served: Don’t panic.

It’s impossible to not be stressed out by a lawsuit. But, you have plenty of time to figure out what is going on. Typically, you have 30 days to respond to a lawsuit (there are exceptions, such as a formal eviction, in which case you only have five days to respond). That is more than enough time to examine the paperwork in detail, hyperventilate into a bag, take a nap, and then start looking for a lawyer.

Secondly, the plaintiff (the person filing the lawsuit is the plaintiff, you’re the defendant) may very well not have a case that they’ll win. If the lawsuit strikes you as illogical or nonsensical, there’s a decent chance you’re right.

But don’t ignore a summons.

If you don’t do anything for 30 days, the plaintiff can then submit a “request for default” to the court. This can result in the court entering a judgment against you in which the plaintiff wins by default. This ruling can then be enforced, which can result in a lien being placed against your property, garnishment of your paycheck, and serious damage to your credit. You can ask a court to “set aside” the default ruling if you have a good reason for not having responded during the 30 day time limit, but there are no guarantees that the court will grant your request. Your life will be much, much easier if you respond to the lawsuit within 30 days.

But how do you respond to a lawsuit?

First of all, you have to consider how much money you stand to lose. If you’re being sued for $500, it’s absolutely not worth your while to hire an attorney. Hop on Google to find the page for your local small claims court (for example, Sacramento County’s is here), which will give you the rundown on what to do, and PDF versions of the paperwork you need.

If you’re being sued for thousands of dollars, then it’s probably time to track down a good lawyer (you can contact us directly through our contact form, or give us a call at 916-400-4516). Your lawyer will help you determine the appropriate response to the lawsuit. The first step is always to respond to the complaint. Some of the more common responses that are filed include:

  • An Answer. In an answer, the defendant explains what aspects of the plaintiff’s claims are not true. Or, they can admit that what the plaintiff claims is true, but give more background information that explains the situation, and puts things in a different light.
  • General Denial. Sometimes a general denial is used when absolutely nothing the plaintiff says is true, though this is applicable only in certain situations.
  • Demurrer. A demurrer is filed when even if everything the plaintiff is saying is true, there isn’t a legal basis for them to hold you responsible. A demurrer has to be used cautiously because frivolous demurrers will not be taken well by the court, and identifying whether or not an argument has legal merit is a complicated question.
  • Motions. There are many different motions that can be filed in response to a lawsuit. Motions can be used to:
    • Ask the court to remove certain parts of a plaintiff’s case because they’re not comprehensible, legal, or relevant (motion to strike);
    • Request that the case be moved to a court in another county or a different type of court (motion to transfer);
    • Tell the court that the plaintiff didn’t serve the complaint properly (motion to quash service of summons);
    • Ask the court to delay the case (motion to stay);
    • Ask the court to throw the case out entirely (motion to dismiss action).
  • Counterclaim. If you have reason to sue the person who sued you, you can submit a counterclaim, in which you describe why you are suing, and how much you are suing for. You can submit a counterclaim that relates directly to the original lawsuit. If you have a complaint against the plaintiff, but in an unrelated manner, then you must file a completely separate claim.

A lawyer will be able to determine what the appropriate response is in your situation, and will know what paperwork to file and where it should go.

If the case doesn’t get thrown out for one reason or another, what will follow is a long, slow process in which the vast majority of cases are ultimately settled before they ever reach the inside of a courtroom. (Actually, it’s quite common for the first response to a lawsuit is a request to settle, rather than any of the other possibilities described above.) In a settlement, both sides sign a binding agreement in which one side agrees to pay the other a set amount of money (or possibly no money at all), or some other action takes place.

Don’t sign a settlement unless you’re completely okay with it. Once you sign, you are legally obligated to uphold your end of the deal, and it will be nearly impossible to back out after the fact. Signing a settlement is not a stall tactic; once you sign, the case is over.

If a settlement isn’t reached, then there will be a court date. In short, you and the plaintiff will appear before a judge–odds are, there won’t be a jury–and you’ll each make your case. After you’ve each said your peace, the judge will make a binding decision.

As noted above, unless you’re going to small claims court over a very small amount of money, then you will probably want to lawyer up in order to have someone guide you through the court process. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive guide to the legal process. If you would like more information on what to expect when you have been sued, please call us, or use our contact form to the side to email us, so that we can schedule a time to meet and discuss your case.