Following the initial emotions, undoubtedly there will be a number of questions. What is the best approach? What are the first steps? What do the various legal terms even mean?
Let’s start by defining the terms. What is a summons? A summons is an official written order to appear before a court, judge or magistrate because you have been named as a party in a lawsuit. What is a complaint? A complaint is a pleading filed by a Plaintiff stating the claims they have against the Defendant as well as the action they would like the court to take. The plaintiff is the person who has filed a complaint/charges against the defendant for prosecution by the courts, while the defendant is the person who is refuting the charges and is seeking to prove his or her innocence.
As a defendant, it is important that you do not ignore the summons. The popular adage that “if you ignore it, it will go away,” does not apply in the legal system! Once you receive a summons and complaint, an action has already been filed in the court system. Pursuant to Florida law, you have 20 days to file a written response with the court. The court clock starts running the moment you receive the summons and complaint. If you do not file a response, the plaintiff will be able to file a motion and obtain a default judgment against you. A default means that you have no defenses to present in the case. Once a default is in place against you, you will be prevented from defending yourself at any later date, even if you have excellent defenses.
What should you do to respond to the summons? In short, contact your attorney immediately. BEFORE you file any kind of response.
Your written response will become a permanent record in the case. So, do not take it lightly! It should be crafted carefully so that you say exactly what you need to say – no more, no less. Some defenses that may be available to you are waived if you do not raise them in your initial response. Therefore, it is imperative that you and your attorney thoroughly examine the court documents for any defenses, defects or standing issues.
It is important that you are open and honest with your attorney concerning the case at hand. With her help, you can begin to piece together the facts of the case. Your attorney can help you collect any necessary paperwork and think through any witnesses to the incident that might be helpful and could testify.
In the meantime, do not contact the attorney for the plaintiff or the plaintiff or any member of his or her family. Do not contact the court, a judge or any other official of the court. It might also be wise to severely limit the circle of people you speak to about the case.
The truth is, the legal process is nuanced and complex. A good attorney can help you navigate these steps and the options at hand. Having a little help makes “being served” much less scary.