In law, as in life, showing up is crucial
Vail, CO, Colorado
Woody Allen famously once said “Half the secret of success in life is just showing up.”
What may be true in life in general is true in law as well. You don’t show up and they roll up the playing surface. And in law, that can have some pretty serious consequences.
A lawsuit is begun by filing a complaint with a court which states the plaintiff’s grievances and articulates the theories of law upon which he or she relies. To be sufficient, the complaint must also name whom the plaintiff believes is responsible for his or her legal bag of woes. In some states, but not all, a complaint must also quantify the damages the plaintiff believes he or she suffered at the hands of the defendant. Lastly, the complaint must instruct the court as to the type of relief the plaintiff believes he or she is due.
Examination of the terms surrounding a lawsuit are instructive. The party initiating the suit is the plaintiff, which means the one who complains. It derives from the Old French “plaintif,” which means one “aggrieved” or “lamenting.”
The defendant, of course, defends the accusations leveled against him and the complaint is the vehicle by which the aggrieved articulates the wrongs allegedly committed against him. Ultimately, the court orders how the injury is to be ameliorated by the party found to be at fault.
In order to effect a complaint, it must be served upon the defendant with a summons. A summons is an order of the court instructing the defendant to appear before it and answer the complaint. The summons starts the stopwatch of the lawsuit running.
Which brings us to the part about just showing up.
Skipping a host of procedural alternatives, one must answer the complaint within a specified time frame, otherwise, the allegations made will be taken by the court as true. The answer sets up the defenses to the suit.
Speaking generally again, if the party served with a complaint resides within the state in which the lawsuit is commenced, he or she has 20 days following service to answer the complaint and lodge it with the court. If he or she lives out of state, 30 days to answer is the norm.
What, then, if you don’t show up? You’re served with the lawsuit and you tuck it in your back drawer, there to molder and turn yellow? Well, to put it gently, you’re in trouble.
You see, if you turn into an ostrich when the suit is served upon you, and, after the 20 or 30 days within which you must answer, you’ve don’t nothing more than squawk and thrashed your vestigial wings in a feather-flying frenzy, chances are the plaintiff will move the court to have a default judgment entered against you.
Yikes. Sounds ominous. It is.
A default judgment says to the court, “Hey, the defendant has put up no defense.” And the court must surmise, then, that everything the plaintiff has alleged is true. And since everything the plaintiff claims is true, then the plaintiff must be entitled to the relief he or she requested. And since he or she is entitled to the relief requested, then the court must grant it and, having granted it, the defendant must pay up. The default judgment may then be used to commence collection in satisfaction of the claim.
From the defendant’s point of view at least, this would seem a considerable “oops” moment. I coulda, shoulda done something more than just ignore it.
Half of life is just showing up. As true in law as life but, just maybe, when it comes to law, with a little sharper exclamation point!
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He can be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins can be reached at 970-926-4461 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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