How do you know if someone's filing a lawsuit against you?
June 13, 2014 9:55 AM   Subscribe

Assuming a person moves around a lot and does not have a permanent mailing address, how do you know if someone is trying to sue you? Do you just continuously check your credit report to see if you missed a court date somewhere? But then by the time you miss it, it's too late. You automatically lose if you don't show up in court.
posted by olivetree to Law & Government (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In the US, you can't get sued without being given a notice that you are being sued. There are loopholes that can mean you were officially served without knowing, but in general the plaintiff has a duty to let the defendant know that they are being sued.

If you were not served but the plaintiff claims that you were, and some judgement/action is taken, I would call a lawyer ASAP.
posted by muddgirl at 10:01 AM on June 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm pretty sure that if you're being sued, they have to have a summons sent out to you. If it's in a distant place, that could be problematic, time wise, but you have to be notified for a case to continue.

And on preview, muddgirl beat me to it.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 10:02 AM on June 13, 2014

On second thought, "loopholes" probably isn't the right word, but there is a process for suing plaintiffs that can't be located by all reasonable measures, such as divorcing a spouse that has disappeared.
posted by muddgirl at 10:06 AM on June 13, 2014

I am a lawyer but I am not your lawyer and this is not legal advice. If you require legal advice, you should seek the advice of licensed counsel in your jurisdiction.

muddgirl is correct that service of process is a requirement to proceed, but after a good-faith attempt to locate the defendant, courts will allow service by publication in a newspaper.

Sometimes courts are willing to open up a default judgment, particularly if service was effected by publication and the defaulting party is willing to litigate the claim on the merits.
posted by gauche at 10:06 AM on June 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

If they truly couldn't find you to serve papers on you, how are they going to suddenly be able to find you to enforce the judgment against you?

If they were not really trying to find you to serve papers on you, but just wanted you to lose automatically because you didn't show up, that sounds like a good basis for your appeal.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:10 AM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Almost all of Virginia's circuit and general district courts have their dockets online. Same for D.C. Superior Court and Maryland's circuit courts. Your state or jurisdiction might as well. If you think you know where the action would be filed (like the county where you lived, probably, if it's a landlord/tenant action), you can check the court's website and see if they have online dockets. If so, search for your name periodically.
posted by radicalawyer at 10:11 AM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

in the US, you can indeed lose a case without ever hearing about it...

1. service by publication. the plaintiff exercises "due diligence" to locate the defendant, fails, then submits an application to the court (with supporting declaration and draft order) to allow service by publication, in california, once a week for four weeks in a newspaper which has been adjudicated to be "of record". this can be any obscure rag that has gone through the motions.

(i remember the time a salesman from the county's biggest paper called me and said that his rates for publishing legal notices were 30% less than the paper i was using, and i would have a larger audience. i had to explain that i didn't really care whether the defendant read the notice, i just wanted to get a judgment for my client.)

2. sewer service. a crooked process server throws the papers away, but signs the proof of service under oath anyway.

(i remember the time this happened to me. alleged substituted service on my sister at our apartment, but i don't have any sisters, and the server had bollixed the address for my mailbox. according to sworn declarations, my subsequent actions induced atrial fibrillation in the head of the server firm!)

setting aside a judgment: within six months after the judgment is entered in the state i know best, it can be set aside on a noticed motion for "mistake, surprise, inadvertence or excusable neglect". after that period is up, you need to show the much higher standard "extrinsic fraud".

keep an eye on your credit report, and also keep an eye on the records in the courts you are most likely to be sued in - the ones that have jurisdiction and venue for the action you're concerned about. some courts have online records (hooray!), and others require a little shoe leather by you or the watchdog you appoint, to the clerk's office (boo!),

none of this is legal advice, and i've been inactive for 20 years. good luck!
posted by bruce at 10:28 AM on June 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

This happened to me as follows:

In October 2001, I lived in New Hampshire (close to the state line) and worked in Massachusetts (also close to the state line). I was involved in an accident in Massachusetts on my way to work one morning. A teen driver who was driving with a suspended license ran a stop sign and totaled my car. She claimed to the police officer that she did not remember what happened. Two of her three passengers (also teens) were bleeding, one from the ears, and were transported by ambulance to a local hospital. My only injury was that my wrist hurt from my airbag deploying and my knee hurt from being smashed against the steering wheel on impact; later x-rays revealed bruising from both but nothing else.

The police officer agreed I was definitely not at fault for the accident and noted that in his accident report.

I filed a claim with my insurance company.

Several months later, I received three notices in the mail from the same ambulance-chasing law firm, claiming I was "clearly negligent" and yada yada yada, notifying me that the driver had retained the law firm and intended to sue... the second letter that the parents of the first passenger had retained the law firm and intended to sue... the third letter that the parents of the other two passengers had retained the law firm and intended to sue.

I sent copies of all three letters to my insurance company, as they instructed me to do when I called them about it.

I heard nothing further about the accident, or so I thought. My insurance company had given me a sizeable check that I used as a down payment on a new car, and paid my doctor's bills once my health insurance refused to pay ("this was from a car accident, it should be paid by your auto insurance, not us"). I assume the other party was paid from their insurance company, though the "driving on a suspended license" bit was likely a complication for them.

Fast forward to September 2005. I had started and finished grad school on scholarship from my employer. Upon graduation, I was transferred by my employer to another location elsewhere in Massachusetts. I had moved three times since the accident, I had changed my license and registration from NH to MA, and each time I moved, I kept my addresses current with the Post Office and the RMV.

Out of the blue I get a phone call at work from my car insurance company:

"Were you ever served with a subpoena to appear in court as a result of lawsuits from the accident you were involved in in October, 2001?"
"Well the other insurance company came to us demanding $70,000, which was a default judgement entered against you for not showing up in court."

Well, I responded with some rather colorful language that is not suitable for MetaFilter.

I assured the insurance company rep that I had not received a subpoena, because had I received one, you had darn well better believe I would have showed up in court.

My insurance company did some investigation, and found out that the ambulance chasing law firm had sent a subpoena to my old address in New Hampshire, where at that point I had not lived in four years, and made no attempt to find my current address. My insurance company said something about attempting to overturn the judgement because they had not "performed their due diligence" in trying to find me.

Then there was talk of settling the suit, which pissed me off because she was driving on a suspended license, that having been verified by the police officer who investigated the accident, and she had definitely run a stop sign, which according to the accident report, had been seen by no less than three witnesses -- she didn't slow down at all.

I do not know what happened. I cannot find my name in any online court records that might have shown up on me, and the judgement is not on my credit report. So perhaps my insurance company really did take care of it. Though I have no idea why the *#@$& they paid those people anything, if they did.

TL;DR version: Yes, it is possible to be sued without knowing about it, especially if you move a lot. But, it's illegal to sue someone without giving them proper notice.
posted by tckma at 11:03 AM on June 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Set up a google alert.
posted by theora55 at 11:53 AM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

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