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Court Papers Involved in a Lawsuit

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Many court papers are filed as a lawsuit begins. Here is a general breakdown of these different papers that you may end up filing or receiving during the initial process:

COMPLAINT

The complaint is usually the first document filed. In it, the plaintiff must have a basic outline of their case against the defendant. The petition will identify the involved parties, explain how the court legally has jurisdiction over the lawsuit, and list the legal claims of the lawsuit and the facts behind those claims. There is also typically a section of the complaint called a "prayer for relief." In this section, the plaintiff identifies what they would like the court to require the defendant to do.

This document lets the defendant know exactly what is being brought against them including the factual and legal bases that support the plaintiff's claims. Because the complaint is based on the plaintiff's own knowledge and understanding of the issue from what they have experienced or been told, the facts may be sketchy or may not paint a full picture of the event. In a personal injury case, the complaint must outline the causes of action against the defendant. Typically, the cause of action will involve negligence, which involves an outline of the legal duty breach by the defendant and the damages sustained by the plaintiff.

SUMMONS AND SERVICE OF PROCESS

A summons is a document given by the court to the defendant that notifies them that they are being sued. It will include some information from the original complaint and set a time limit for the defendant to file an answer or to try to have the case dismissed. The document also lists the consequences if the defendant fails to respond to the summons. If they fail to respond, the case can move forward without their involvement and the defendant will be "in default."

Once the summons has been served to the defendant, the court has jurisdiction over the case as well as the defendant and can make decisions about the complaint that will affect them.

ANSWER

The answer is the defendant's response to the complaint. In the defendant's answer, they will respond to each paragraph of the complaint in one of three ways: admitted, denied, or insufficient knowledge to admit or deny. The defendant can also defend themselves by listing legal reasons for not being held liable. Such reasons may form the basis of a motion to dismiss the case.

Of course, there are many other legal papers - called pleadings - that are filed in a typical lawsuit. This post only begins to outline the common pleadings that are used to initiate a lawsuit.

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