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What Happens When Someone Sues You?

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In a Nutshell

Being served with legal papers can be stressful. But like all challenges, there are ways to deal with this. Understanding the rules of the court, basic legal definitions, and each step of a civil case is a great place to start. In this article, we’ll help you understand the difference between small claims courts, large claims courts, and civil courts. We’ll also discuss some tips for answering a lawsuit filed in any court.

Written by the Upsolve Team.  Reviewed by Attorney Andrea Wimmer
Updated September 3, 2021


Being served with legal papers can be stressful. But like all challenges, there are ways to deal with this. Understanding the rules of the court, basic legal definitions, and each step of a civil case is a great place to start. In this article, we’ll help you understand the difference between small claims courts, large claims courts, and civil courts. We’ll also discuss some tips for answering a lawsuit filed in any court. Although dealing with a lawsuit is stressful, you can equip yourself to deal with it.

The legal system can be difficult to understand. There are strict procedures and deadlines, not to mention the confusing legal jargon. To understand the legal system, you’ll first need to learn common legal terms.

  • Plaintiff: The plaintiff is the person suing you. A plaintiff may be an individual (sometimes referred to as a natural person). It can also be a group of people (sometimes referred to as an artificial person) who together have the same legal powers as an individual. Examples include partnerships, corporations, or other business associations. Some small claims courts only allow individuals to file cases.

  • Defendant: The defendant is the person (either natural or artificial) that the plaintiff is claiming has caused harm to the plaintiff.

  • Complaint: If you want to sue someone, filing a complaint initiates a legal proceeding or civil case. The plaintiff’s complaint contains a list of allegations and claims against the defendant. It describes how the defendant's actions caused the plaintiff harm and why and how the defendant should be held legally accountable for those actions.

  • Summons: Once the plaintiff has filed a complaint, the court will issue a summons. This is a document issued by the court and served with the complaint. It notifies the defendant that they are being sued. It will describe how much time the defendant has to answer the complaint and where to file their answer. The complaint and the summons will be delivered to the defendant together as part of a procedure called "Service of Process." 

  • Answer: This is the legal pleading that the defendant must file with the court to respond to a lawsuit. A defendant’s answer includes their defenses and why they shouldn't be held accountable for the harm caused to the plaintiff.

  • Judgment: A judgment is a decision that the court makes about the lawsuit. If a person “wins” the lawsuit, this means that the court issued the judgment in their favor.

  • Default Judgment: If the defendant fails to answer the complaint, the court will consider the allegations in the complaint to be uncontested. This means that the court assumes that everything the plaintiff has claimed is legally and factually true and will award the judgment in their favor by default. 

Large Claims vs Small Claims Courts

Aside from some specialized courts, there are usually two types of civil courts. The first is usually called a superior court, district court, or court of common pleas. This type of court hears civil cases for claims that exceed a certain amount. The second type is small claims court, which hears cases for claims that are below a certain amount. These amounts vary by state from $2,500 to $25,000. Civil court judges can order you to pay unpaid debts and money damages for personal injuries. Court costs and filing fees are lower in small claims courts. 

Unlike the higher civil courts where most parties are represented by an attorney, most small claims courts do not allow attorneys. This eliminates the need to pay costly attorney’s fees. Some small claims courts do allow attorneys if all the parties to the lawsuit agree. Another key difference between higher civil courts and small claims courts is the plaintiff’s right to appeal. While this right is well-established in law, plaintiffs in small claims cases typically don’t have the right to appeal.

Small Claims vs Civil Cases

Small claims courts have a ceiling on the dollar value of the claims they decide. For example, Arizona allows claims up to $3,500 to be heard in a small claims court. There is generally no limit to damage claims in higher civil courts. Some states have an intermediate level of courts. An example is Arizona, which allows cases for less than $10,000 to be filed in its justice courts.   

How To Handle a Complaint

If you are sued in a civil case, you must respond with an answer. If you don't file an answer by the deadline in the summons, the court may enter a default judgment against you. While each lawsuit differs, the process generally includes the following steps:

Check the Details

Responding to a lawsuit may involve several steps. Your local court clerk’s office should provide forms and other useful self-help information for navigating the process. The first step of handling a complaint is to know all of the details. 

Carefully read the summons and the complaint, paying close attention to the deadlines outlined in the summons. Remember that if you fail to file an answer by the deadline, the court can issue a default judgment against you. If you need more time to file your answer, you can request it. But you must do so before the answer deadline passes. If your case is complex enough that you need additional time to answer, it might also be complex enough that you could benefit from legal advice. If so, consider consulting with an attorney.

It is also good to know what judgment the plaintiff is seeking from the court and what you might be liable for if the court decides in the plaintiff's favor. The plaintiff's request for relief or what the plaintiff wants from the court will be at the end of the complaint.

Evaluate Your Options

Once you understand the facts of the case, the second step is to consider your options. In addition to preparing and filing an answer to the plaintiff's allegations, you have other options available. These include:

  • Negotiating with the plaintiff;

  • Filing a motion to dismiss; and

  • Filing a counterclaim against the plaintiff.

If you are being sued for a debt that you cannot afford to pay, one option may be to contact the plaintiff and negotiate a settlement of the debt and the lawsuit. Debt settlement may allow you to settle a debt for less than the full balance. If you are facing many debts that you cannot afford to pay, and many potential lawsuits, you may want to consider bankruptcy. Upsolve has a free web tool that can help you learn more about bankruptcy. 

The second option you have is a motion to dismiss. This basically tells the court that you think the plaintiff did not follow the rules of filing a lawsuit, so the court should not hear the case. An example would be if the plaintiff filed their suit after a statute of limitations had expired. You could also file a motion to dismiss if the plaintiff didn’t inform you of the lawsuit in a timely fashion or if they filed the suit in a court that has no authority to hear the case. 

Finally, if you have a claim against the plaintiff, you may be able to file a counterclaim. This strategy can reduce the amount you’d have to pay if the court awards a judgment to the plaintiff. Generally, the defendant must file a counterclaim as part of their answer to the lawsuit, or they lose the right to bring a claim against the plaintiff for the event that caused the lawsuit.

Again, if you don’t file an answer to the complaint, it is highly likely that the court will award the party that filed the lawsuit a default judgment. If the judgment is for money, the plaintiff would then be able to use certain collection tools like wage garnishment and bank levy to recover the amount of the judgment.

File a Response With the Court

You must file your answer to the complaint by the deadline. This is usually 20 days from the date that you are served if you’re in state and 30 days if you are served out of state. 

Each complaint has a unique set of facts and allegations. Your answer must include a detailed response to each one. Read through the allegations in the complaint, several times if necessary, until you are confident that you understand exactly what the plaintiff is claiming and whether these claims are true. The allegations in the complaint are listed in consecutively numbered paragraphs. In your answer, you should respond to each paragraph using the exact number used in the complaint.

Once you have finished preparing your answer, you can file it with the court clerk at the courthouse or electronically online. You must also deliver or serve a copy to the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s attorney. 

What To Expect Next

What happens next depends on your response to the complaint. If you file an answer, there will be a hearing or trial. To win the case, you’ll need to convince the judge that your version of the story is accurate. To do so, you’ll need to support your claims with evidence, especially if you file a counterclaim. You may have to call and examine witnesses or cross-examine the plaintiff’s witnesses. After both parties present their evidence and witnesses, the judge will make a decision and award a judgment. 

Let’s Summarize...

If you get served with a complaint and summons, familiarize yourself with the allegations in the complaint, the deadlines you need to meet, and the damages that the plaintiff is seeking. This amount will determine whether your case will be heard in the large claim or small claim court. Once you are comfortable with the details of the lawsuit, you can prepare your defense by completing an answer and submitting it to the court and the plaintiff. If you need more time to complete it, you can ask for it as long as you do it before the deadline passes. 

Don't be afraid to seek legal help. Many lawyers will provide a free consultation and many court offices will have self-help resources available, as well. If you’re served papers, try not to panic. You have a legal right to file a response and present your side of the case.



Written By:

The Upsolve Team

Upsolve is fortunate to have a remarkable team of bankruptcy attorneys, as well as finance and consumer rights professionals, as contributing writers to help us keep our content up to date, informative, and helpful to everyone.

Attorney Andrea Wimmer

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Andrea practiced exclusively as a bankruptcy attorney in consumer Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases for more than 10 years before joining Upsolve, first as a contributing writer and editor and ultimately joining the team as Managing Editor. While in private practice, Andrea handled... read more about Attorney Andrea Wimmer

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