Defending Yourself when Being Sued
Feb. 22, 2021
Getting sued can be pretty scary. But if you learn how to defend yourself, you might be able to fight the case without paying for an attorney, and you might even win.
In this blog, I'm going to assume that you are getting sued because you didn't pay your credit card bill. If you are being sued, you are known as the "defendant". The company suing you is known as the "plaintiff." Let's assume that you are being sued in New Jersey in the county court that is known as the Special Civil Part. This Court hears cases involving claims that are valued at no more than $15,000.
When you get sued you have to be notified that a lawsuit has been filed against you. You receive this notification by getting two documents in the mail. One document is the summons, which lets you know who is suing you, and it gives you several options as to what you can do to defend yourself. The other document is called the complaint, and that is where the attorney for the plaintiff makes certain statements which are sort of like accusations against you. For example the complaint might say that you got a credit card in 2010, that you charged up $10,000 on the credit card, that you only paid back $2500, and that you now owe a $7500 balance to the plaintiff.
The summons will tell you that you have a deadline date to file papers with the court if you want to defend yourself. The way to defend yourself is by filing an "Answer" to the complaint. Filing an answer will cost you a $30 filing fee, and you have to file the answer with the Special Civil part before the deadline expires. The court will usually set the deadline date at about 35 days from when the summons and complaint were mailed to you. If you don't file your answer to the complaint on time, you will have a default entered against you, and that means that you may automatically lose the case - its sort of like you gave up and didn't even try to put up a fight. Many people in these types of cases don't do anything when they get sued like this, and they lose their case because they were scared and didn't know what to do. They buried their head in the sand, when they could have easily filed an answer and maybe even won the case. We don't want that to happen to you.
The New Jersey court system is very friendly towards people who defend themselves without an attorney. Many instructions, documents, and court forms are available on the web. One of the best places to go to for this information is the following website: njcourts.gov.
I'm going to help you navigate that website so that you can figure out how to file an answer to the complaint. Once you get to the home page, look at the top left, and click on "Self-Help Center". That will take you to the next page, where you will see in the center column the title "Lawsuits for Money". Look down to where it says "Defending Yourself in Special Civil Court", and click on that link. That will take you to the page that is entitled "If you are being sued in a special civil case." Please read that page carefully. You don't have to have legal training to understand it, and it is not written in "legalese", it is written in pretty simple and easy to understandd English.
After you have read all of that material, go back to the middle area of the page and click on "How to file an answer in the Special Civil Part". That's going to take you to 13 pages of information and forms. The form that is most important to you is on page 8 and 9. The material on page 10 to 13 doesn't apply to you. That stuff is for people who are getting sued as a result of having been involved in an auto accident case. Before you complete the Answer on page 8 and 9, make sure you carefully read and understand the material on pages 1 through 7. Again, this is not rocket science. The material was specifically written for people who are going to represent themselves without a lawyer.
Once you have read and understand what to do, you are ready to complete and file your answer to the complaint. As I have previously stated, if you don't file your answer with the court on time, you can totally lose this case without even having tried to defend yourself. That's not something a smart person would normally do.
Unless you just want to give up, I suggest that it is a good idea to file an answer to the complaint and contest this case. One reason that I say this is because of a legal principle in the civil law that is called the "burden of proof". The plaintiff has sued you for $7500. Just because they sued you, it doesn't mean that they are going to win. When you file your answer, its sort of like saying to the court, "i'm going to fight for my rights in this case. I'm going to make them prove these charges that they are making against me, and if they can't prove what they are claiming, I'm going to win this case."
The burden of proof principle means that the plaintiff has to convince the court by legal proof and evidence that they have the legal right to win their case. If the plaintiff can't meet its burden of proof, well it's sort of like the criminal principle where a defendant accused of a crime is presumed innocent unless the prosecution can prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. So in a civil case where you are being sued by money the plaintiff has to proof each and every element of the case against you, and if they can't do it, they lose. It's that simple.
Let me give you an example of how the plaintiff can fail to meet its burden of proof. You are being sued for $7500, and they are saying that you owe it to them because you signed an agreement years ago where you applied for a credit card, and the terms of that agreement established all of their rights and all of your responsibilities. Well, what if they come to court for trial, and they don't have the original or a copy of the document that they claim you signed when you applied for the card years and years ago. If that were to happen, the judge just might say to the plaintiff's attorney, "You have failed to meet your burden of proof. You have not submitted the proper evidence to prove your case against this defendant, and I rule in favor of the defendant. Case closed."
There's a lot more to do than just file an answer when you are defending yourself. This is just the beginning of the process which eventually might lead to a judge conducting a full trial. If you are considering representing yourself, and you need answers to some basic questions, I always offer a free consultation, with no obligation whatsoever. I'd be happy to talk to you about the lawsuit that has been filed against you and offer you some helpful pointers that will make you feel much more comfortable with the whole process. Feel free to call me at 856-696-8300.
The main point I wanted to make here is that I don't want to see people lose the case by default because they didn't know what to do. By filing an answer to the complaint, you have now listed the case as a contested matter. You are not going to concede defeat. You are going to make the plaintiff prove its case against you, And I can tell you that I have seen cases where just before the date that the case is scheduled for trial, the attorney for the plaintiff all of a sudden contacts the court and tells the clerk that they are volutarily dismissing the case against the plaintiff, and that means that you have won the case without having to go to court for a trial.
Now why would the attorney for the plaintiff suddenly just drop the case against the defendant? Here's what I believe. The lawyer realized that the client simply did not have all of the records and documentation they needed to submit at trial in order to meet the burden of proof. The lawyer didn't want to come to court and be totally embarrassed in front of the judge, and therefore the lawyer voluntarily dismissed the case.
So if the defendant had not filed an answer, the defendant would have automatically lost the case. By having filed the answer, the defendant ultimately won the case, and he didn't even have to appear for trial before the judge. I hope you have learned a valuable lesson from all of this, and if you'd like to learn more about the way the system works when you are getting sued, I'm happy to help you.
If you are getting sued, don't give up. Don't make it easy for the plaintiff. Fight back, because this is a fight that you just might win, and wouldn't that feel great?,