Legal Topics

What to do if you have been sued

How Do Lawsuits Work

and

What Do You Do If You Are Sued In Pennsylvania?

There are two types of courts that hear civil lawsuits in Pennsylvania. The magisterial district courts, often called small claims courts, hear civil suits involving damages of less than $12,000. Cases are heard relatively quickly in the magisterial district courts, and the pre-trial discovery process is less involved. The Courts of Common Pleas hear more serious criminal and civil matters, and the process is longe, more complex, and more expensive. While many parties initiate and defend against lawsuits in the small claims courts without attorneys, representing yourself is less common in the Courts of Common Pleas.

In the majority of cases, a lawsuit begins with the filing of a Complaint. The Complaint lists in detail the reasons for the lawsuit and why the complaining party (the plaintiff) believes the defendant owes the amount of money requested. While the plaintiff is not required to provide all of the detailed information needed to prove his case, the Complaint must contain enough information to provide a plausible legal and factual basis for his claim. For example, the plaintiff must state whether the lawsuit is for breach of contract, personal injuries due to the defendant’s negligence, or some other reason. The complaint should also explain in general terms how the plaintiff arrived at the figure he is asking for in damages.

After a complaint is filed the defendant will be sent a copy in the mail and will also be served with a copy of the complaint by a sheriff or private process server. Once the complaint has been properly served, the defendant must file a response within 20 days. If no response is filed within that time, the court will send a notice to the defendant giving him 10 additional days in which to respond. If the defendant fails to answer, he may give up his rights to defend himself against the suit, and a judgment may be entered against him with no further notice.

The defendant has two options when responding to a complaint. He may file an answer, in which he admits or denies each of the allegations in the complaint. The defendant is not required to explain the basis for his answer; he must only state whether each allegation is admitted or denied, or if he does not have enough information to admit or deny a particular allegation. For example, the defendant may admit that he and the plaintiff entered into a contract on a certain date but deny that he breached the contract.

The defendant also has the option of filing preliminary objections to the complaint if he feels that the plaintiff’s case has no legal basis. For example, he may object on the grounds that the plaintiff waited too long to file, and that the statute of limitations has expired. He may object on the grounds that the plaintiff failed to provide enough information to establish a legal basis for his claim. Filing preliminary objections will cause the court to set up a hearing to determine whether the lawsuit can continue. If the court rules that the lawsuit can continue, the defendant will be given time to file an answer.

What Happens After the Pleadings Are Closed?

After a lawsuit has been filed, and preliminary objections resolved, and an answer is filed by the defendant, the process of discovery begins. Discovery in magisterial district courts is limited, but for cases in the courts of common pleas, the process can be lengthy, complex, and expensive. Discovery is a way in which each party may ask for information from the other party, or from unrelated parties, to help rove their case. Types of discovery include:

  • Interrogatories are lists of questions for the other party to answer under oath. Interrogatories may include almost anything, as long as it is relevant to the lawsuit and does not include privileged information, such as the matters discussed with an attorney, therapist, or other medical professional.
  • Requests for Admission. Either party may request that the other party admit certain facts, such as whether a signature on a contract is their signature, or whether a party was present at a certain place or time. Requests for admission can make the trial of the matter easier by allowing the parties to agree to certain facts.
  • Requests for production of documents. The parties may ask for any documents, photos, or other records that may be relevant to the lawsuit. Other types of information that may be requested are phone records, emails, and even social media posts.
  • When information relevant to the lawsuit is held by parties other than the plaintiff and defendant, the parties may request that the court issue a subpoena for production of the information. Some examples are bank records, texts or emails received by outside parties from the plaintiff or defendant, and credit card records.
  • A deposition is a pre-trial testimony given by either party to the lawsuit or any other party who may have information relevant to the matter. During a deposition, the attorneys ask the person being deposed a series of questions. The person is placed under oath and their testimony is recorded by a court reporter.

After the discovery process is concluded a court date will be set. Most cases, though, never make it to trial, and are settled during the discovery process. Many others are resolved through a mandatory arbitration system, required for cases under certain dollar amounts in many Pennsylvania jurisdictions.

After a case is heard and a decision made, cases heard in magisterial district court can be appealed to the court of common pleas, and cases heard in the courts of common pleas may be appealed to the Superior Court. Parties who lose in the Superior Court may file a petition to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but few petitions are granted.