You answer the door and a man hands you an official document and says “you’ve been served”. In your quivering hands are a summons and lawsuit papers. What do you do? This is not the kind of question you want to consider for the first time after the fact. It is important to know how to conduct yourself prospectively in this situation to prevent any missteps. Do not panic or argue with the process server. He can’t (and likely won’t) help you. Accept service of the summons, but only if you are the correct individual the process server is attempting to serve. Do not accept service on anyone else’s behalf.
Avoid the temptation to immediately call your spouse, your best friend, or your boss. More importantly, strongly resist the additional temptation to simply vent to the nearest random individual. And perhaps most importantly, do NOT post anything about the summons served upon you, or the suit being brought against you, on any social networking website. Many people, especially those being sued for the first time, read the allegations in a lawsuit petition and are so personally offended or surprised by the allegations that they want to call the attorney bringing the suit to say “this isn’t true” or “it didn’t happen like that”. Keep silent and keep your fingers away from all keyboards, including that tiny one on your phone.
When you can no longer feel your heart pounding in your chest, read the summons and suit papers carefully. Make some notes for your attorney of what you believe are the most important points, especially as they relate to the allegations against you. These notes should be prepared for your attorney so that they remain privileged from discovery, and to help you and your attorney prepare your defense. If you already have an attorney, contact him promptly, since suit papers are time-sensitive and a formal responsive pleading must usually be filed within 30 days (sooner in some jurisdictions).
The issue or event over which you are being sued may not be fully known to you. In fact, it may be something for which you have insurance coverage. Do not presume that is not the case. Pull out your auto, homeowners, professional liability (if applicable) or other policies and contact the claims departments immediately to report the suit, because if you do have coverage for the allegations in the suit, timely reporting that to your carrier is also critical. If your carrier acknowledges that they do cover you for the allegations, they will likely assign a defense attorney to you, but you can also work with your own personal counsel at the same time. To help either your assigned or retained counsel, try to promptly locate any documents or records that you believe may be associated with the claim asserted and place them in a secure location. You are building a file to take with you to your attorney’s office.
Do not discuss the details of the suit or any of the allegations raised in the case with anyone besides your attorney. Your discussions with your attorney are protected by attorney-client privilege, but statements you make to anyone else are not. No matter how irrelevant or innocuous you believe your conversation with someone else may be, you should understand that the contents of any such conversations are discoverable. That means that you may later have to sit through a painful deposition listening to your casual words – flippant, confessing, insulting or otherwise — repeated on the record by the person with whom you spoke.
Those are the basic “rules of conduct” when you are served. Don’t panic, maintain silence, collect relevant documents, contact your insurance carrier, and call your attorney. Once the suit papers are in your hands, the outcome of the suit may be out of your hands – but you still play a vital role in assisting in your own defense.