A summons is the official document coming from the court informing the recipient that a lawsuit has been filed and they have been named as the respondent. Service of summons is essential for the court to acquire jurisdiction over the respondent. Failure to serve summons will lead to a dismissal. If improperly served, any judgment arising from the case cannot bind the respondent. This is usually the situation in cases where there are multiple respondents; those not properly served with summons cannot be held liable for the awards in the decision.
The general rule is that summons must be served personally to the respondent. This means that the document must be handed to the responded himself. The rule is not absolute however and there are some exceptions. In special cases, where the respondent cannot be located or is in hiding, summons may be served by leaving a copy at his residence. Aside from absence of the respondent, it must also be shown that the sheriff performed reasonable effort to serve the summons personally. In case the respondent is out of reach or is abroad, service of summons can be made through publication in a newspaper of general circulation.
On the other hand, when a summons is correctly served, the recipient has no choice but to answer. The respondent is usually given 20-30 days to file a response, depending on the specific rule of each state. The period is counted from the day the respondent received the summons. If the last day of the period of filing a response falls on a weekend or a holiday, the respondent can still file the response on the following day.
The response will either directly contest the allegations in the case or deny the fact that the summons was properly served. Either way, the response must be made or else the respondent will be declared in default. A default order means that the respondent can no longer participate in the trial. His/her failure to file a response is a waiver of his right to contradict the allegations of the plaintiff. The respondent is then prohibited from presenting evidence and yet will be bound by the outcome. This is the worst scenario that can happen to the respondent because they cannot even defend themselves. The court will decide the case based solely on the evidence presented by the plaintiff.
Hence it is important to file a response within the period prescribed. To be sure that the response is reasonably filed, read the summons carefully. The document will usually indicate the date of receipt and the last day for filing a response. Many states provide a standard form for court summons, whichdesignate the important dates to remember. As a matter of practicality, it is always better to file an answer as soon as possible.
However, if you are not sure of the contents of the summons, you should contact a personal injury lawyer. A personal injury lawyer will advise you on what is the best step to take after receiving a summons. A personal injury lawyer will not only tell you the deadline for filing but can also help you draft the content of your response.