Personal Injury:

Initial Paperwork

The legal personal injury papers that are filed in court at the beginning of a lawsuit are called "pleadings." Your personal injury attorney will explain pleadings to you in the particular context of your case, but the summary that follows will give you a head start in understanding some of the many documents that may become a part of your personal injury lawsuit. Please note that some states have different names for some of these documents.

The first document filed in a lawsuit is the Complaint (or Petition), which provides an outline of the plaintiff's case against the defendant. It identifies the parties involved, sets out the legal basis for the court's jurisdiction over the controversy, states the plaintiff's legal claims, and relates the facts giving rise to the claims. It will also contain a section called a demand for judgment or prayer for relief. Here the plaintiff will set forth what he or she wants the court to require the defendant to do, such as pay damages.

The purpose of the Complaint is to provide the defendant with notice of the factual and legal bases of the plaintiff's claims. Generally, the facts set forth in the Complaint are based on the plaintiff's own knowledge. Most states require that the Complaint set forth a short and plain statement of the plaintiff's claims, so don't be surprised if the facts are sketchy, or if they don't seem to tell the whole story.

Summons and Service of Process:
The Summons is an order from the court where the personal injury lawsuit will be heard or "litigated." It notifies the recipient that he or she has been sued, refers to the Complaint or Petition, and sets out the time limit within which the defendant must file an answer or seek to have the case dismissed. It will also describe the consequences of failing to respond in a timely manner: the case may be decided without the defendant and he or she may be bound by the result even if they did not participate. Failing to respond to a personal injury lawsuit on time will cause a defendant to be "in default."  The Summons is usually a form document.

The defendant's response to the Complaint is called an Answer, though some states use a different word for this document. The Answer will address each paragraph in the Complaint, and each response will ordinarily take one of three forms: "admitted," "denied," "insufficient knowledge to admit or deny." An answer may also set forth various affirmative defenses, which are legal reasons why the defendant should not be held liable for the plaintiff's damages. Some of these defenses may also be the basis of a motion to dismiss.

If a defendant has his or her own claim against the plaintiff, one which arose out of the same circumstances as those that led to the Complaint, it should be raised in the Answer in a section titled "Counterclaims." The Counterclaim will be written in a manner similar to the Complaint.

Reply to Counterclaim:
If a defendant asserts a Counterclaim in the Answer, the plaintiff may respond by filing a "Reply." The Reply will "admit," "deny," or assert that the plaintiff lacks information, just as the original Answer did. The Reply also may assert defenses, just as the Answer did.

Cross-claims arise when there are many parties to the personal injury lawsuit and two or more, who are "aligned" as plaintiffs or as defendants, have their own dispute arising out of the transaction or occurrence.

Answer to Cross-claim:
The person being sued in a Cross-claim will file an Answer similar to the one filed after the original Complaint.

Third-party Complaint:
Sometimes a defendant who has been sued will have a legal reason for passing strict liability off to another person. A common example is a contract in which the third party promises to pay if you the defendant is found liable in a case. This person may be brought into the lawsuit if the defendant files a Third-party Complaint. Like the regular Complaint, it will set forth the relevant facts giving rise to the defendant's claim against the third party, and will set forth a request for relief.

Answer to Third-party Complaint:
The person being sued through a Third-party Complaint must file an Answer, similar to the one filed after the original Complaint.