By Attorney Edward Jesson
People and businesses get sued every day, and while no one enjoys being on the receiving end of a lawsuit, there are certain things that should be done to try and make the experience as painless as possible. In North Carolina, a lawsuit is generally started when an individual or a business (also called the “plaintiff”) files a complaint. The clerk of court issues a summons, which must be served on the defendant (the party being sued). This can generally be done by mailing it certified mail, return receipt requested, sending via FedEx or UPS, or having the county sheriff personally deliver a copy of the summons and complaint.
Once the summons and complaint have been served, the defendant has 30 days to respond to the complaint in district and superior courts. In small claims court, when a defendant is served (in some instances this can be achieved by the sheriff leaving a copy of the complaint taped to the front door), they will usually receive a notice of hearing along with the complaint.
Here is the first point that I would like to make clear: if you are served with a lawsuit, please do not wait until day 29 to contact an attorney. Evaluating your position as a defendant in a lawsuit and preparing the correct response takes time. While you can usually get a 30-day extension of time to respond, doing so at the last minute is not always possible, and the extension likely won’t be granted if it is after day 30. If you fail to respond to the complaint in time, the plaintiff may be entitled to a default judgment. It is exactly what it sounds like— they will automatically win “by default”! A default judgment can be hard to overcome once it is entered, and the excuse that you simply “forgot” to respond is usually not enough.
Point number two: Do not answer the complaint without first consulting with an attorney. In an answer, you will generally just admit or deny the allegations to the complaint, but that is not the only response that is available. There are several ways that you may be able to get the lawsuit dismissed (meaning the case is thrown out), but that option is not available if you admit or deny allegations in the answer first. By doing that yourself, you may be preventing an attorney from later dismissing the lawsuit.
For most people who are sued, it is for the first time in their lives (and hopefully the only time). Once the shock, confusion, and anger has worn off, it is important not to bury your head in the snow. Contact a litigation attorney who can help you navigate through the civil system and, hopefully, get your case resolved in the most efficient way possible. If done correctly, you may save a lot of money; however, trying to handle it yourself oftentimes results in the expenditure of more money. If you or anyone you know has been sued, please give the attorneys at Jesson & Rains a call.
No one ever wants it to happen, but it happens. The mailman asks you to sign for certified mail, or, even worse, a sheriff’s deputy shows up on your doorstep and “serves” you. Once the dust settles you are left with a summons and complaint, which are the documents showing that someone has sued you. Furthermore, because you signed for the documents when the USPS dropped them off, or because the sheriff’s deputy personally handed them to you, the person suing you (the “Plaintiff”) knows that you received them.
What to do next? The answer is not to ignore these papers! The clock is now ticking.
Under the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, you have 30 days to respond to a lawsuit (whether that response is an “answer,” “motion for extension of time to respond”, “motion to dismiss the lawsuit” or otherwise). If you do not respond to the lawsuit in any way within 30 days, then the Plaintiff has the option to pursue a default judgment against you. A default judgment is a court order granting judgment in the Plaintiff’s favor because you failed to respond. It is the same as a regular judgment, just as if you had gone to trial and lost. You now owe the Plaintiff money. By ignoring these legal papers, you have waived your ability to present any valid defenses to the Plaintiff’s case.
The first step in obtaining a default judgment is to obtain an entry of default from the clerk of court. The clerk (or judge) will look at the court’s records and any affidavits provided by the party seeking a default in deciding whether to enter default. The most important effect of the entry of default is that all allegations in the Plaintiff’s complaint are deemed admitted.
The second step is to obtain a default judgment. The party moving for a default judgment must show the court that complaint and summons were properly served on the defaulting party and that personal jurisdiction exists.
In certain instances, a default judgment can be granted by the clerk without the need for a hearing, but in most cases an evidentiary hearing in front a judge will be required before awarding an amount of damages. Further, the court may not award punitive damages by way of a default judgment.
If you mistakenly fail to respond to a lawsuit, there are ways to set aside the entry of default and/or a default judgment, though it is not certainly not guaranteed that you will be successful. To set aside an entry of default, you need to show the court that there is “good cause shown” for you to fail to respond to the complaint. The North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure also provide a procedure to have a default judgment set aside, but again, you are only able to do so under a limited set of circumstances. Of course, to set aside a default judgment you must show that there was mistake, excusable neglect, fraud, or other extenuating circumstances. If you received a copy of the summons and complaint but simply ignored the lawsuit, the default judgment will not be set aside.
Because there is no guarantee that a court will set aside an entry of default or default judgment, especially if legal papers are intentionally ignored, if you receive a summons and complaint, be it in the mail or personally delivered to you, the best course of action is to contact a
litigation attorney, like Edward Jesson at Jesson & Rains, who can guide you through the process and make sure to avoid any issues with defaults. If you learn that a default judgment has been entered against you or your business, and you believe you have never been served with any legal papers, please contact Jesson & Rains at once.
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