The police? Yes, that’s right. If you are sued, at least in North Carolina, you may find Mr. Policeman (or Ms. Policewoman) at your door. There are several ways that you may find out you or your company are being sued, but undoubtedly seeing the Sheriff at the door is the most nerve-racking. Heck, we have Sheriffs in our law office occasionally to serve papers, and the sight never fails to startle me. So be forewarned—the first you find out that there is a lawsuit may be when Johnny Law himself comes knocking.
While unnerving (as it is often meant to be by the party suing you), rest assured that all the Sheriff will be doing is identifying you and handing you papers showing you’ve been sued. The Sheriff doesn’t actually have to hand you the papers personally- in fact, depending on if and how you are incorporated, he may be handing them to your spouse, another adult that resides in your house, your business partner, or an officer or manager of your professional association. While the Sheriff is not supposed to leave papers with a mere employee, that can and does happen as well.
The Sheriff is not the only way you can be sued. You can also get a certified mail package—you know, the type that requires you to go sign for it at the post office. Or, you may get a Fed Ex package. If you are being sued in federal court, or you know the lawsuit is coming, you may not get anything, as it may all come to your lawyer instead.
What should you do if you do get the lawsuit (called the Complaint)? First, run, do not walk, to your insurance carrier and/or lawyer. Do not pass go. This should be the first thing you do. If you don’t have a lawyer, but you have insurance, your agent should be able to help you report the claim, and a lawyer will be assigned to you by the insurance company. If you have a lawyer, you can report to him/her, and ask the lawyer to make the claim on your behalf to your insurance company.
Remember, however, that you need to report it as soon as you can. In state actions in North Carolina, you have 30 days from receipt to respond. In federal actions, you have 20 days. There are certain rules concerning weekends and governmental holidays that change these deadlines at times. But the important thing to remember is that you must respond, timely, or you can end up with a judgment entered against you in default. So, when you report the lawsuit, the first thing your agent or lawyer will want to know is the date you (or someone connected with you) first received the Complaint.
If you report the claim and do not hear back? Follow up. Never assume that an email went through or that the person you called isn’t on vacation or in the hospital. Make sure that you speak with your agent and/or lawyer personally and that they know when you were served.
Questions? Comments? Have you ever been sued? Do you now know something you wish you knew then? Drop me a line or comment below.
Next week in our series: You have the right to an attorney! (but one will not be appointed for your construction lawsuit)
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