Getting Sued: Ten Things You Should Know

The Incredible Unpleasantness of Being a Litigant

There's nothing worse than that sinking feeling you get when you are handed a legal document that announces you're being sued. Say hello to lawyers, courtrooms, big bills, sour stomachs, and sleepless nights. Here are things you may not know about being on the receiving end of a lawsuit.

1. You're it. You don't have to "accept" the papers that begin the lawsuit. You just have to be "given" the papers … which can mean that the server announced what the papers were and then presented them to you … even if you throw them on the ground. (p.s. That may earn you a citation for littering!)

2. No service advantage. The plaintiffs—the persons filing the suit-–lose their cases about half the time they go to trial in state courts.

3. The purse is shrinking. Even when plaintiffs win, their financial awards are smaller. The median award in state court jury trials fell to $37,000 during the 1990s—less than half of what it had been before 1992.

4. It's all about the pregame. Fewer than 3% of the civil lawsuits filed go to trial, so it's unlikely you'll end up being grilled in the witness box.

5. Watch what you sign. You have a right to a jury trial in a civil dispute unless you signed away that right by agreeing to arbitration.

6. Five top reasons civil lawsuits are filed: contract disputes, personal injuries, disputes over property, disputes over estates, and family disputes such as custody and divorce proceedings.

7. Just the facts, ma'am. Witnesses (except for expert and character witnesses) can generally testify only about things they observed, not what they heard.

8. The emotional hook. Lawyers love clients who sue over "principle," because their cases usually go on longer than those brought solely for economic reasons. If you're a defendant, resist the urge to countersue unless you have a solid case. See a therapist instead—they're cheaper than lawyers, and you'll feel a whole lot better.

9. Forget Perry Mason. A jury doesn't always consist of 12 people. Instead, in many states or federal courts, your case may be decided by nine or even six people.

10. Address the stress. As a defendant, you will likely be insulted, enraged, and incredulous. Take some time to blow off some steam. More golf or more yoga, whatever will help.

How frivolous is frivolous?

Let's see … there was the little league coach in Ohio who, after a 0-15 season, was sued for bad coaching.

Then, there was the man who sued the bank he robbed after being burned by tear gas from an exploding security pack.

Then there was the woman who claimed injuries after sitting next to an obese woman on an airplane.

Then there was the lady who sued the makers of a snack food for incorrectly listing the calorie count.

And of course there was the writer who was sued for defaming a convicted serial killer.

This article was excerpted from Nolo's Little Legal Companion. You can get a free copy by signing up for one of Nolo's Legal Newsletters.

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