What to do when you are sued

Video Transcript

I'm Paul Richard Brown. I’m a lawyer with the law firm of Beresford Booth in Seattle, Washington and the topic of today’s discussion is quite simply what do you do when you get sued.

Imagine you're at home, you're sitting down relaxing after a hard day of work and you get a knock on the door. That’s normal. You get up and you answer the door and there in front of you is a stranger. This person hands you basically two packets of papers and says to you, “You’ve been served,” and turns and walks away. You're shocked.

You look at what's in your hand and you see this document that you’ve never seen before and your name is on it. But your name isn't at the top. Your name is at the bottom of the document and says you are a defendant. You have been served. You have been sued. There is a complaint.

Now, understandably the normal emotions such as shock, anger, dismay, stress to name a few overwhelm you. What are you going to do? You turn around to your spouse. She or he looks at you and what's this? And gosh, I don’t know honey but I think I've been sued. Here’s these documents.

Understandably, you probably don’t even want to read the documents and if you look at these documents, you probably skim them over because your heart is racing at such a pace that it's almost uncontrollable. So, what's your next step? Well, you need to hire an attorney. Yes, I know you don’t want to hear that answer but that is the answer you must face. You have to hire a lawyer. Now, the real issue then is what kind of lawyer do you hire? All joking aside, you hire a good one but how do you find out whether or not you have a good attorney.

Who do you contact after you've been sued?

My recommendation will be you find someone who is passionate. Find someone who cares. Find someone who has empathy for your situation. Find someone who you believe will be your lawyer, your champion, someone who is going to look for your best interest and decide what to do that’s in your favor.

How do you know which lawyer to hire?

Now, how do you find this person? He or she, this warrior, this champion, if you're knocked out with lawyers before or you’ve dealt with attorneys just in business transactions, it's not that easy. I mean, do you, you know, look in the yellow pages or TV?

I think the better recommendation might be to talk to your friends, vet out someone that you can find that’s recommended. Find recommendations on who they are, what type of person they are, what is their experience and then meet them. Vet them out.

See if this person, he or she, is indeed going to be someone who’s going to be your champion because once you find that person who’s your champion that will help in the comfort level on what you need to face in the upcoming months and sometimes years.

Find a lawyer who can explain the situation to you. Find a lawyer who will tell you the truth. A good lawyer is someone who will tell you the truth and knows things that you may not want to hear such you may have some exposure here.

This is what we need to do to limit it or this is a bad case but unfortunately it's going to take many months, possibly a year or two to resolve it and it's going to cost you a lot of money but they're being honest and they have integrity.

It's not going to be a situation unfortunately like you see in the movies or on TV where within an hour episode, you have a trial, you have a judgment, you have a resolution of the matter. Within the time you finish your popcorn or soda in the movie theater, the case has already been, you know, resolved. That impression is not accurate to the reality of American jurisprudence, American litigation.

I mean, it's kind of ironic in spite of all the lawyer jokes we have. We are the most litigious society in the world. More lawsuits than any other country combined.

So, yes, our society teases lawyers but we sure use them a lot. So, what do you do then? You found your lawyer. You’ve got your champion. You have someone you trust. This person needs to explain the process to you on what to do when you have this lawsuit. The first recommendation would be now take a deep breath. Yes, it's not going to be fun.

It's not going to be something that you're going to be happy about but nonetheless take a deep breath. If you recall what I said a few minutes ago, it's a long process. This doesn’t happen overnight. Things don’t immediately occur. It takes some time. Your lawyer should be able to explain to you that process.

I'll briefly go over, you know, some of the generic situations you're going to be looking at so you can ask these questions of your attorney to see whether or not they have an understanding and can lead you in a way that makes sense to you.

So, you have this complaint. This is that document where I told you was given to you as you opened the door and at the bottom of that complaint is your name, defendant.

Okay. That’s not a good feeling at all but you have to look at that complaint and answer those complaints, those allegations that are found in those pages. Some of the paragraphs are going to be pretty simple such as, you know, what your name is or where do you live or where are you employed and you have to answer whether or not you admit or deny those things.

Then you get to what we call the meat or the heart of the complaint and those are called causes of action.

Causes of action are the legal terms of what is being complained about you such as a breach of contract, a misrepresentation of some kind, a wrongful act of some kind.

This is what you have to look and discuss quite frankly very detailed with your attorney about how you're going to respond. Once you get all those responses together, you then file what's called an answer. And that’s usually done within 20 to 30 days depending upon the jurisdiction of where this case is being heard. Also within that answer though, you will have the opportunity to file what we would call counter claims or third party claims and that’s where you can look at the complaint, evaluate what half-truths or innuendos or allegations are there and determine whether or not you have the right, legal right to ask for relief against not only the person suing you or there might be somebody else responsible.

Again, sometimes they need some creativity in this and that’s why you have to have that warrior at your disposal, that person that’s got your answers.

So, you file this answer and sometimes with the counter claims or a third party complaint. Then the next process you'll go into is what's called the discovery phase and again this is a phase we don’t see in TV, we don’t see in the movies.

It's very long and time consuming at times. And this is where you get questions asked of you in writing and you ask the questions in writing.

These are called interrogatories. And you have document requests that you make and someone asked of you where you have documents related to the lawsuit. These are called requests for production. And then finally you have what's called depositions and that’s where you, people related to the complaint, witnesses will go before a court reporter and give sworn testimony that’s being recorded. That’s called deposition testimony.

This process takes quite some time. Sometimes it takes many months up to a year. It could be several years depending upon how complex the matter is.

After all this is gathered, this gathering is called getting the evidence of the case. Once you have the evidence of the case, keep it in mind, it didn’t happen immediately. You were served on this complaint a month or two or five or eight or a year ago.

You’ve got all this evidence together, now you need to compile, gather this evidence and really come together and see if you can get out of the lawsuit. Now, how do you do that? When you take the documents and the deposition testimony, these answers to questions, these interrogatories, you see if you can file a motion that gets you out of the lawsuit. That motion is called a motion for summary judgment. Sometimes it's successful depending upon each case obviously and sometimes unfortunately it's not.

Then the final phase of the matter is a trial and that’s the part where you see on TV or in the movies. It's a lot longer in reality than you see on TV and the movies but nonetheless that’s what happens once you get all of the documents and everything together. Yes, it takes a long time, yes, it's expensive and yes, it's time consuming and at times can be very very stressful.

However, if you have this warrior as I talked about, this person that has your interest at heart, this person with integrity, you will have a good understanding through every step and every facet of the case on what you're facing. Of course, with obviously the disclosed uncertainties that you might not win motions and that, you know, you may have to produce additional documentation you don’t feel like producing.

So, my suggestion would be if you get a lawsuit served on your door, it disrupts your afternoon barbecue plans, after the initial shock and dismay, anger, anxiety is over, after you’ve calmed down a little bit, assured your loved ones that things are going to be fine, we're going to find that warrior, my suggestion is when you meet with the warrior, your champion, ask those questions such as what's the process like, what are we looking at doing, how much do you think approximately it's going to cost? I’m not asking for definiteness but what are the parameters of those things, do we need to settle, do we need to prepare this case for trial. And finally and I failed to mention earlier, that only 4% of all matters filed, all lawsuits filed in our country actually go to trial.

So, what happens with the other 94%? Well, quite simply, they settle, they're dismissed, you know, and they don’t end up in this resolution that you see in the movies or on TV.

And the resolution that I’m talking about that’s alternative to that would be through mediation or other alternative dispute type fashion. And these avenues are available also.

And you should, when you're talking with this person that you may hire as your champion or lawyer, discuss with them these options and see what the availability of that would be, too.

I’m sorry that I had to give you the reality but that is the reality of what happens when you get served, what happens when you have that lawsuit. It isn't though the end of the world.

It's unsettling like I said. It's not fun but when properly addressed and when taken, understanding the steps that are there, understanding what your rights are, understanding what the process is you can ensure yourself a higher degree of success than otherwise.

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