LAWSUITS: Can’t live with ’em . . . Can’t live without ’em!

» Posted on Oct 12, 2017

IMPORTANT:  As any attorney with his or her salt must tell you, the following information is only a general guideline based upon the laws, rules and procedures of the State of Washington.  It is not legal advice.  If you are not in Washington, your state’s laws, rules and procedures may be different.  Most importantly, many laws, rules and procedures have exceptions that may apply in your situation, so you should always consult with an attorney to evaluate your particular circumstances.

Oh No!  I’ve just been served!

Being served is not pleasant.  Most everyone experiences an immediate swell of deep feelings, from anger to panic and fear.  After you’re over your initial reaction, the most important thing for you to do is to TAKE ACTION.  Ignoring the lawsuit (or just procrastinating) is the most harmful thing you can do.

In the papers served upon you are a Summons and Complaint.  The Summons informs you of your obligation to participate in the legal process.  If you live here in Washington, then the Summons will tell you that you must file something with the court within twenty (20) days of the day you were served.  If you live in another state but are being sued in Washington, the Summons will tell you that you have sixty (60) days to file something with the court.  If the deadline for your response lands on a weekend or holiday, court rules allow for you to file the required response the next available court day.

If you do not take some action to defend the lawsuit by the deadline in the Summons, the Plaintiff can ask the court to enter a Default Judgment against you.  A Default Judgment typically awards the Plaintiff what they are asking for, even if you know the Complaint is a bunch of lies.  Unless you respond by “appearing or otherwise defending” the lawsuit, the court may accept the Complaint as true and enter judgment against you.

The Complaint tells you the claims that the Plaintiff is making against you and what they think that they deserve from the court.  A proper Complaint should have six parts:  (1) the caption; (2) the parties; (3) jurisdiction and venue; (4) factual allegations; (5) legal theories; and (6) the request for relief.

The Caption:  The first section of the Complaint is the caption.  It starts by identifying the court where the lawsuit is (or will be) filed.  The parties, Plaintiff(s) and Defendant(s), are named in the box on the left.  To the right is the court cause number.  Underneath the cause number is the name of the document, i.e. Complaint, Summons, etc.  Going forward, all documents filed with the court by anyone should have this caption on the first page.

The Parties:  The first section of the Compliant should identify the parties to the lawsuit:  the  Plaintiff(s) and the Defendant(s).  If you are being sued personally in Washington, it is typical that your spouse and marital community are also named.  If your company is being sued, you should make note whether you also are being sued personally.  Usually, this section also states where each party lives so that the court has authority over them and the subject of the lawsuit.

Jurisdiction and Venue:    Jurisdiction is the legal term for the authority of the court.  Different courts have different authority.  In Washington, the Superior Court has general jurisdiction, or authority over all claims involving persons in Washington.  The District Court has limited jurisdiction.  The District Court cannot hear claims exceeding $75,000, and does not have authority over real property claims.  Each county in Washington has its own Superior and District Courts.  Venue is the legal term for the proper location of the court.  Venue is the county where the Defendant lives, or where the incident occurred, or where most of the evidence is.

Factual Allegations:  A complaint must state facts that support a legal basis for the court to award to the Plaintiff what they are asking for.  Washington is a “notice pleading” state, so as long as the story in the Complaint can be understood in some way to support a legal claim, it will be sufficient.  The facts in the complaint are just allegations, not evidence, and must be proven even for a default judgment.

Legal Theories:  A complaint should state the legal basis for the Plaintiff’s claims.  For example, it should say that the Defendant was negligent, or breached a contract obligation.  Each legal theory has elements that must be proven for the Plaintiff to recover, and the Complaint should include those elements.  For example, negligence requires (1) duty, (2) breach, (3) causation, and (4) damages.  In a car accident case, the Complaint should say that the Defendant had a duty to operate his or her car in a safe manner, failed to do so, and had an accident with the Plaintiff that caused injuries to the Plaintiff.

Request for Relief:    A complaint ends with the Plaintiff stating what the court should do.  This can be awarding a money judgment, or awarding property, or making the Defendant perform an obligation, or stopping Defendant’s conduct, etc.  In certain circumstances, the Plaintiff may also be entitled to ask for interest on a money judgment, attorney fees and costs.

Notice of Appearance:  At an absolute minimum to delay a default judgment, you must give some type of notice to the Plaintiff that you are “appearing” in the lawsuit.  If there is a cause number on your Summons, you should file this notice with the court as well.  Under court rule, if you have given notice to the Plaintiff that you are appearing in the lawsuit, the Plaintiff must give you five (5) days notice before going to court for a default judgment.  In most cases, if you answer the complaint thereafter, the court will deny a motion for default judgment.

Challenges to the Complaint:

The Answer:  An Answer is the formal pleading that you must file with the court in response to the Plaintiff’s Complaint.  In the Answer, you admit or deny each allegation of the Plaintiff.  Next, the Answer should state any Affirmative Defenses that you have.  An affirmative defense is a basis for you to deny the Plaintiff’s requested relief even if the Plaintiff’s factual allegations are true.  For example, you may admit that you didn’t pay the Plaintiff’s bill, but you claim the Plaintiff failed to complete the work.  You should seek legal advice before answering because there are there are some affirmative defenses that you will lose if you do not include them in your Answer.