The threat of a lawsuit, or the prospect of litigation, sends most people into an emotional state somewhere between panic and outrage, especially if that person hasn’t protected their assets ahead of time. Running a business or getting through the daily routines of personal life can be overwhelming without the added stress of a process server, marshal or sheriff coming to your home or office with a summons and complaint.
Most people have never been involved in a lawsuit, so seeing your name or the name of your business in the caption followed by the word “DEFENDANT” can be unsettling. There are ten things you should know about lawsuits that will help you make the right decisions once the process server leaves.
1. It will not go away on its own. Lawsuits must be taken seriously.
Regardless of how frivolous or inconsequential the lawsuit might seem to be, ignoring it can have serious consequences. Failing to file a formal, written answer to the allegations contained in the lawsuit can result in a default judgment against you in favor of the opposing party. A default judgment means potentially your plaintiff can go to your bank and freeze your account or go to the registry and put a lien on your home or rental property. You won’t find out about it until checks start to bounce and you “swear there was at least $10,000 in that account.”
2. That ticking sound is a clock.
The defendant in a lawsuit must file a formal answer or make a motion within a limited period of time that is set by the laws in each jurisdiction. Getting angry and tossing the lawsuit papers into a corner in your home or office to be dealt with later is a mistake. Some states limit the time to submit an answer to just 20 days or less from the date the defendant is served.
3. I can do this without a lawyer.
Without getting into all of the reasons why representing yourself in a lawsuit is a mistake, and there are many, be aware that the laws in some states, such as New York, require that an attorney appear on behalf of a corporation that is a defendant in a lawsuit. Yes, lawyers cost money that most people or small businesses cannot readily afford, but lawyers know the defenses allowed under the law and the procedures that to follow to avoid a costly errors.
4. Choose a lawyer you can depend upon.
If you are using an attorney for the first time, make certain your lawyer is familiar with the issues raised in the lawsuit. Attorney’s today are as specialized as doctors; one does not go to a brain surgeon to fix a broken leg. Ask the lawyer how many lawsuits like yours he has taken to verdict. Lawyers who settle most of the cases they handle might be good negotiators, but you also want to know that the attorney you choose can handle a trial if one is necessary.
5. Be honest with your lawyer.
The second worst mistake you can make is to attempt to defend a lawsuit without having legal representation. The worst mistake is having an attorney but failing to disclose all the facts in an honest and forthright manner. The lawyer you hire is on your side regardless of how good or how bad the facts and the evidence make you look. Lying to your lawyer, or withholding information because it portrays you in a bad light, will make it difficult for your lawyer to represent you and often times you are doing yourself a disservice because when that information you are hiding comes out in court, your lawyer will be caught off guard with no strong, well-thought out response.
6. Don’t ignore insurance options.
Some types of insurance policies provide coverage in the event of a lawsuit. Automobile insurance or homeowners insurance are two policies with which most people are familiar, but there are other types of insurance, such as malpractice or errors and omissions policies that provide coverage in the event of a lawsuit. In most instances, the insurance company will take the lead, pay for your defense, and often times negotiate a settlement.
7. Listen to the expert you hired.
You are paying your lawyer to give you expert legal guidance, but the money is wasted unless you listen and heed the advice that is given to you. Telling your lawyer how you think your lawsuit should be handled ignores the fact that your handling of the situation is probably what got you into a lawsuit in the first place.
8. Fighting over principle can get expensive and distracting.
Whether you are the defendant being sued or the plaintiff who started the lawsuit, at some point you have to consider exactly what it is that you are fighting about. Does defending or prosecuting the lawsuit make sense economically? If you find yourself spending large sums of money on legal fees, court costs and related expenses that will exceed the amount you will recover if you win, it is probably time to reevaluate your position. Perhaps it is time to stop fighting and consider a negotiated settlement to put an end to the litigation. A lawsuit that goes to trial can easily cost $100,000-200,000. Imagine trying to run your business with a lawsuit hanging over your head for 3 years. The stress distracts you from positive things like growing your business.
9. Don’t assume your legal expenses will be paid by your opponent.
Absent an agreement, such as a contract or a law requiring the losing party in a lawsuit to pay the other party’s legal fees, the parties are responsible for their own costs of defending or prosecuting a lawsuit in the United States. Even if you have a contract that states the loser in a dispute will pay legal fees, it is rare that courts award full legal fees.
10. Expect to be in it for the long haul.
People want lawsuits to end quickly so they can go about their normal lives and business, but answers, counterclaims, motions and discovery can take months or, sometimes, years to complete. Lawsuits begin with a flurry of activity that dies down as the case progresses beyond the initial pleadings establishing each party’s position. The pace picks up again months later as each side engages in depositions and other discovery procedures. Patience and trusting in your legal representation are keys to lawsuit success.
Bonus Tip: When You are Being Sued
Evaluate your options. Most lawyers will tell you that you cannot take action to protect assets once you know there might be a lawsuit coming. Most lawyers tell you this because they don’t fully understand fraudulent conveyance and how to manage the resulting 4-5 years statute of limitations on asset transfers. If there is an opportunity to make it difficult for someone to sue you – even late in the game – it could put you in a position to negotiate with your attacker and thus minimize the pain, stress, costs, and distraction that a lawsuit can bring.