Question: The Sheriff recently came to my house and handed me a bunch of legal documents. One says “COMPLAINT.” Another one is titled “NOTICE TO DEFEND” and says that I have been sued and that I should take the paper to a lawyer at once. What should I do?
Answer provided by: Michael J. Lyon, Esq. from the law firm of Walsh Pancio, LLC
First – do not panic.
The Complaint and Notice to Defend indicate that another person or party has filed a lawsuit against you. You are not in any immediate trouble simply because a lawsuit has been filed. The Complaint in a civil case is a document that outlines the plaintiff’s allegations and claims against another party. Before the plaintiff can recover anything from you, the plaintiff must first prove his or her allegations in court and obtain a judgment against you. This is a process that often takes months, if not years, to complete.
HOWEVER – do not ignore what has been handed to you either. If you ignore a Complaint and Notice to Defend, you could suffer drastic legal consequences.
The Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure provide 20 days for a defendant properly served with a Complaint and Notice to Defend to file a response to the Complaint. If you do not file a response within 20 days, the plaintiff may be able enter a default judgment against you. This would allow the plaintiff to start collection actions against you immediately, and the plaintiff will have the ability to levy on and potentially seize your money, property, and other assets. Likewise, failing to respond to the Complaint and Notice to Defend may deprive you of any ability to dispute the plaintiff’s claims in court, and to otherwise defend yourself.
After receiving the Complaint, you should first read it to determine the plaintiff’s allegations against you. Is the plaintiff claiming that he/she suffered personal injuries due to an event that you were involved in, such as a motor vehicle accident, slip and fall, or physical contact? Is the plaintiff claiming that you breached a contract, or did not fulfill your obligations under an agreement that you had? Is the plaintiff claiming that you owe a certain amount of money, such as rent, taxes, payment for an item, or an outstanding amount on a loan or mortgage?
Next, you should determine if you have liability insurance coverage that would be applicable to the claim. If the case involves a motor vehicle accident, you should immediately call your automobile insurance company and notify it of the lawsuit. If the case involves something else—particularly if it involves an accident that took place on your own property—you should call your homeowners’ or renters’ insurance company. Whichever insurance company you contact will determine if insurance coverage is applicable to your claim. If it is, they will assign counsel to defend you during the lawsuit.
If liability insurance is not available to you, then you should immediately take the documents to a lawyer who is familiar with the type of claim being asserted in your complaint. The Montgomery Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service is an excellent resource for finding attorneys in your area. You can also ask friends and family for a referral or recommendation. Once you speak to an attorney, you can discuss his or her potential fees for representing you in the case. Once you have retained an attorney, you can discuss with him or her your response to the plaintiff’s claims. Make sure to bring all documentation, photographs, computer files, or anything else you can think of that has anything to do with the plaintiff’s claims so that the attorney can review them with you. Whether assigned by an insurance company or retained by you personally, you should make sure to answer all of your attorney’s questions honestly, and provide to him or her any information that they believe will be necessary to defend you.
Being served with a Complaint and being involved in a lawsuit is often stressful. However, the assistance of an experienced attorney can often ease the stress significantly, and turn what begins as a difficult experience into an ultimately positive one.
To arrange a discounted ($40) half-hour consultation with attorney Michael J. Lyon, Esq., click here to email a Montgomery Bar Association LRS advisor (LRS@montgomerybar.org), or call 610-994-3656 during regular business hours (Monday-Friday, 9 AM-4PM). If contacting us by phone, please be sure to mention this attorney's name and how you heard about us. Automated referrals to other Montgomery Bar Association member-attorneys in your area offering free or deeply discounted consultations through our service are available online anytime at RealLawyers.org.
More about this Montgomery Bar Association member-panelist (bio provided by this attorney prior to publication):
Michael J. Lyon, Esq. is an attorney with Walsh Pancio, LLC in Lansdale. He graduated from Villanova University and the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University. He is admitted to practice law in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. His practice focuses on civil and commercial litigation, as well as gaming and Internet law and regulation. He has exclusively worked in private practice since graduating from law school in 2009.
In every year since 2014, Mike has been selected for inclusion in Super Lawyers-Pennsylvania Rising Stars, a distinction awarded to just 2.5% of attorneys practicing in Pennsylvania. He is an active member of the Montgomery Bar Association, where he is Vice-Chair of the Young Lawyers’ Section and Chair of the CLE Committee, and the Pennsylvania Bar Association, where he is Vice Chair of the Gaming Law Committee. In his community, Mike has been a member of the Montgomery Township Planning Commission since 2015, was a founding member and continues to be an advisor to CrossFit Kanna in Ambler, and has been an adjunct professor at Villanova.
Mike has been happily married to his wife, Melinda, since 2011. He and Melinda are the proud parents of two children, Trevor and Natalie.Submit your anonymous legal questions to AskARealLawyer@montgomerybar.org.