Handling A Civil Lawsuit

Knowing what to do when someone sues can prevent a legal nightmare

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With over 40 million civil lawsuits filed annually, your chances of being sued next year are one in four, according to Arnold S. Goldstein. LL.M., Ph.D., author of Asset Protection Secrets (Garrett Publishing, $29.95).

“There’s nothing worse than having the sheriff ringing your doorbell and serving you with papers,” says Harvey Johnson of Augusta, Georgia, who was sued by a man injured in an automobile accident where his 18-year- old son was the driver. “It was just a blessing that I had put the car and the insurance in his name instead of putting him under the family policy.” While the younger Johnson’s policy had paid up to its limits for the injury of the other driver, the injured party sought to gain additional funds by suing his father, alleging that he’d provided the car for his son’s comfort and convenience. Because the car and insurance were in the son’s name, the case was thrown out by the judge.

Insurance was the answer in Johnson’s case and can apply to other cases involving your residence or automobile. Here’s what lawyers and other experts say you need to keep in mind for such cases. (Note that you can be sued in situations where insurance does not play a role, such as divorce, child support, alimony or work-related issues such as theft or discrimination. In those situations, the following guidelines may not apply, and you should seek advice from a lawyer.)

  1. Have the name, address and policy numbers of your insurance company, agent or broker handy. The first thing your insurer will ask for is your policy number.
  2. Send a brief letter to the insurance broker explaining what happened and keep a copy. Include the location, date, time and names of the parties involved. If the amount of the suit is more than the amount of the policy, ask the insurance company and/or agent in writing if you will need your own legal counsel to represent you. “Don’t take this step for granted because the insurance company only has to pay or defend up to the limits of its policy,” says Calvin McMullen, an attorney in Decatur, Georgia. “More than likely, the insurance company will decide it’s not worth the cost and settle.”
  3. Create a file on the accident and include such particulars as documents and photographs. Track the information you’ve gathered through a computer database program such as Access, Lotus, Excel or Paradox, and give a hard copy and disk to your legal counsel.
  4. Be prepared to be served with a lawsuit or complaint. Read it carefully and keep a copy for yourself. Forward a copy to the insurance company and/or your attorney by certified mail so that you have a record of its receipt. If you notice any erroneous claims in the suit, make note with the documents you send. Forward the documents in a timely manner, because you may have only 20 calendar days in federal court (30 days in state court), including weekends, to respond.
  5. Note how you were served the suit. Service is
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