Every so often, we get a call at our office from a person who was involved in a car accident months earlier, and then they get something in the mail from the other party. They are usually surprised because they thought the car accident was ancient history. Sometimes, it's a letter from an attorney who represents the other party and sometimes, it's a formal lawsuit. In most cases, the other party is alleging injury from the accident. Needless to say, this can cause great distress for most people, so here are some things to keep in mind if this happens to you.
First, you should know that a personal injury lawyer is not the person to call in a situation like this. You see, a personal injury lawyer represents people who have been injured in an accident and who are bringing a claim for those injuries. Now, if you are on the receiving end of the claim, then a personal injury lawyer is not going to be able to represent you. However, a personal injury attorney will often be happy to offer you some advice.
Next, you need to determine what exactly you received from the other party. Sometimes, people get a letter from the other party's lawyer and assume it must be a lawsuit. If you get a letter in the mail, you should realize that is not a lawsuit - it's only a letter. That being said, you should not ignore the letter. Contact your own insurance company or your insurance broker and let them know about the letter. Then send them a copy of the letter via fax, mail, email, or all three. If you send by email, make sure you get a confirmation from your insurance company that they received what you sent them. If you send by fax, print out the confirmation that indicates the fax was indeed sent and received.
Third, you may get served with an actual lawsuit. If this is the case, you will receive a packet of materials. It won't be a simple letter. You will probably see what appears to be lots of court forms stamped by the court. This is known as the "complaint" that was filed against you by the other party. All lawsuits start with the filing of a "complaint." This document makes general allegations, and most are form documents. There may be other papers in this packet you receive.
Once filed with the court, the complaint needs to be "served" upon the other party (you in this case). This "service" of the paperwork can be accomplished in several ways. Usually, an individual is served by a "process server" - a person who walks up to you and asks you if you are "Mr. Smith" and then hands you all the documents. Then this process server will file proof with the court that he/she served you. You then have a limited amount of time to file an "answer" to the complaint with the court. If you don't "answer" the complaint, the other party can petition the court to enter a judgment against you. Basically, if you don't answer, it's like forfeiting the "game."
Sometimes, you will get the paperwork in the mail. If so, you haven't technically been served properly but that doesn't mean you should ignore the materials you received. If you are served by mail, or personally served by a process server, you should contact your insurance company and/or your insurance broker and make them aware immediately. Send them a copy of everything you received. Your insurance company will then usually hire a lawyer to represent you and defend you against this lawsuit. You don't have to pay this lawyer. The insurance company is paying them. The premiums you pay your insurance company cover the cost of defense if you've been sued. Some of these defense attorneys work for outside defense firms, and some are in-house with your insurance company (that's what I used to do before I opened my own practice years ago). This attorney will file an answer on your behalf. The lawsuit can last months or years. Make sure you cooperate with your assigned defense lawyer and your insurance company. It is not only in your best interests to cooperate, but you are often contractually obligated to do so.
by Robert Mansour
Robert Mansour is a personal injury lawyer serving Santa Clarita, Valencia,