Most people will go through their whole lives without being sued. Sometimes it happens, however, and the experience can be stressful and frightening. They probably didn’t teach you in school what to do if you or your business are sued, and it can be easy to panic when you’ve been served with a lawsuit seeking a large amount of money in damages. However, remembering a few simple things can help save you a lot of heartache:
1. Don’t wait, but don’t panic either.
When you are served with lawsuit papers (called a petition and citation in Texas state court, or a summons and complaint in federal court or in many other states’ courts), the clock starts ticking. If you or an attorney do not file a response in court within a certain amount of time, the plaintiff can obtain a default judgment against you, often without any further notice. The deadline should be stated on the citation or summons-if you were sued in a Texas district or county court, you typically have until 10:00 a.m. on the next Monday following the 20th day after you were served. Federal courts, Texas justice of the peace courts, and other states’ courts can have different deadlines.
Don’t ignore the lawsuit, even if you didn’t do anything wrong. If no response is filed, then the court may simply take all of the allegations in the lawsuit as true and enter a judgment against you. Also, don’t panic if the deadline has already passed, because a response can usually be filed so long as the court has not yet entered a judgment.
While you don’t want to wait, you also don’t want to panic and file something in court without talking to an attorney. Doing so can hurt your case-if you were sued in the wrong state or the wrong county, those issues can be waived if they aren’t raised in your first filing, and if you write and file a response yourself without an attorney, you run the risk of saying things that will hurt your case. Instead, consider your options first.
2. Notify your insurance carrier.
In many cases, insurance covers lawsuits filed against you. For example, if you are being sued for personal injury or property damage from a car wreck, it should be covered by your auto insurance. If you were driving someone else’s car, then the car owner’s insurance should also cover you. Other kinds of insurance cover lawsuits as well: Homeowners’ insurance usually includes personal liability coverage that covers many types of non-auto-related claims, and many businesses carry commercial general liability insurance.
If insurance covers the claim, then the insurance company will probably be obligated to hire a lawyer to represent you and pay any judgment against you up to a certain amount. However, your insurance policy requires that you notify the insurance company of the lawsuit, and if you fail to do so, they may not have to pay if a judgment is entered against you.
One of the first things you should do if you are sued is determine whether any insurance policy might cover your claim. Contact your insurance agent if you are not sure. Forward a copy of the lawsuit papers to your insurance company, using the contact information that should be provided in your policy, along with a written request that they provide you with a defense. If you are in doubt as to whether your claim is covered by a policy, the best thing to do is to forward the papers to them anyway.
3. Talk to a lawyer.
If your claim is covered by insurance (and usually even if coverage is disputed), then the insurance company will hire a lawyer to represent you. If not, then you will want to consult a lawyer of your own.
Unlike in a criminal case, you do not normally have a right to a court-appointed attorney in a civil lawsuit. If you cannot afford an attorney, then there are some resources who may be able to help you find a lawyer for free, such as Lone Star Legal Aid or, in Houston, the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Project. If you cannot afford a lawyer or you don’t think the size of the case justifies the expense, you should still at least consult with a lawyer before acting.
4. Don’t destroy your documents.
Finally, once you have been sued, or even once you have good reason to believe you are going to be sued, you have a responsibility to preserve evidence that is relevant to the case. Destroying documents or other evidence could potentially subject you to court sanctions.