How to Answer a Lawsuit in Florida
In this article, we will discuss:
- What is an answer to a lawsuit?
- When should an answer be filed and served?
- What should you include in an answer?
- Affirmative Defenses & Motions to Dismiss
- What not to do after you’ve been served
- What you can expect after you’ve filed an answer
- What should you do?
Knowing the rules, like when to file an answer, are key elements in protecting your rights and possibly winning your case.
The Basics of Commencing a Civil Lawsuit: The Complaint and Summons
In a nutshell, here are the basics of what you need to know about commencing a civil lawsuit:
- In Florida, the initial steps of a civil lawsuit consist of filing a lawsuit with the clerk of the court and serving it on a defendant along with a summons.
- The procedure of letting someone know they’re being sued in a civil lawsuit is called ‘service of process.’
- The complaint is the document that lists the allegations against the defendant and it includes the damages or other relief that the plaintiff seeks for his or her loses.
- The summons is the document that notifies the defendant of the lawsuit filed against them and it include instructions on how the defendant is to respond, identifies the period of time to file a response (usually within 20 days of being served), and it directs how to submit an answer. It will also note that if you fail to take these steps, a default will be entered against the defendant.
An answer is a defendant’s written response to a civil lawsuit and it serves three functions:
- It advises the Plaintiff and the court what allegations of the complaint are admitted and denied.
- It asserts any affirmative defenses to the claim, such as comparative negligence in a personal injury case.
- The answer may include a claim which the Defendant has against the Plaintiff, called a counterclaim.
The first step to learning about an answer is to become familiar with rules of civil procedure enacted by the Florida Supreme Court. This is important because If any rule or process is missed or is not fully adhered to, then your answer could be stricken or the allegations in the complaint can be deemed admitted.
The rules and requirements of filing an answer are outlined in Rule 1.110 (c) of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure.
An answer must be filed and served by a defending party within 20 days after service of process or within the time specified in a notice of action under service by publication, unless the defending party serves one or more motions under Rule 1.140(b)(e) of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure.
The filing of one of the defensive motions stops the time for serving an answer until a judge rules on the motion. If the judge denies the motion to dismiss, the judge will set a time when the answer must be filed. If the court does not, an answer is due 10 days after the denial of the defense motion.
If the defendant fails to file and serve an answer when due, then the plaintiff could file a motion for default requesting the clerk of court or the judge to enter a default against the defendant. The effect of a default is to admit the allegations of the Complaint. Oftentimes, a default may be set aside but that is a topic for another article.
According to Rule 1.110 (c) of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure an answer should either admit or deny the allegations in the complaint ‘in short and plain terms.’ Also, “if the defendant is without knowledge, the defendant shall so state and such statement shall operate as a denial.”
Additionally, the answer should contain the following information:
- The name of the court handling the case
- The case number
- The parties involved
- The response to each individual allegation
- Your signature or the signature of the attorney acting on your behalf
Address Each and Every Allegation
Most lawsuits include more than one allegation. Most of the time each allegation in the complaint is outlined in a separate paragraph with each paragraph organized within a numbered list. If you see this format in the lawsuit summons you received, you’ll need to provide an answer to each individual paragraph – to each separate allegation.
Answering the lawsuit can be as simple as drafting a document and writing ‘admit’ or ‘deny’ or “without knowledge” in correlation to each numbered paragraph in the summons.
Your answer to the lawsuit must address every allegation individually. That’s because the Florida courts view any allegation not clearly admitted or denied as an admission.
Rule 1.110 (c) does allow a defendant to make a general denial of all of the allegations within a lawsuit. However, general denials of all allegations are frowned upon. You must respond to the allegations in good faith. You also cannot answer with a blanket denial if certain facts are known to you to be true, such as the location of where the incident took place.
What if only a part of an allegation is true? Rule 1.100 (c) allows you to submit a partial denial and deny only part of an allegation. This is helpful in cases where the plaintiff failed to separate each allegation into its own paragraph. In your answer, specify which part you admit and which part you deny. Be specific. Write your partial denial response by noting which sentences or clauses are true and which are denied and which clauses or sentences you deny.
The general rule is filing an answer to a lawsuit is always necessary. As mentioned above, you are required to respond to a civil lawsuit within the time set forth in the summons (usually 20 days); however, there are times when your response to a lawsuit does not need to be an answer denying or admitting each allegation. Instead, you can respond to a lawsuit with a motion to dismiss. However, if you’re going to raise any affirmative defenses to a civil lawsuit, they must be asserted with the answer.
An affirmative defense is a defense that reduces or eliminates the claim alleged in the complaint, even if the claim has merit. For example, the statute of limitations is an affirmative defense. The claim may have merit, but if it were filed too late, then the case gets dismissed.
Another example is you may be sued for negligence in an automobile accident case. A common affirmative defense asserted by a defendant is comparative negligence-meaning that if Plaintiff proves that the Defendant was negligent, the Defendant can prove the Plaintiff was also negligent in contributing to the accident and his/her injuries. So, if a jury finds both parties 50% at fault in causing the accident and injuries, then the amount awarded to the plaintiff is reduced by the percentage the plaintiff is found negligent.
There are several scenarios when answering a lawsuit with an affirmative defense and/or a motion to dismiss is the appropriate action. Here are a few examples of affirmative defenses and other grounds for a motion to dismiss.
You Were Improperly Served
If you were served improperly with the lawsuit papers (summons and complaint), you have grounds to raise this in your answer or in a motion with or before your answer is filed; otherwise, that defense is waived. It is not an affirmative defense. It is simply a contention that the lawsuit papers were not given to you in compliance with Florida law. It is not acceptable to serve a lawsuit to a house guest who is staying with you for a weekend. It’s also not acceptable for a process server to show up to your son’s or daughter’s place of work or home (if they don’t reside with you) and ask them to deliver the summons to you. Both scenarios and others like it are grounds for dismissal. It is proper personal service of process to give the papers to you or to deliver them and leave them with a person who resides with you and is at least 15 years old.
Read more about ‘Insufficient Service of Process’ if you believe you were not served properly.
The Complaint Does Not Allege Sufficient Facts to State a Cause of Action.
The lawsuit must explain in short and simple language the actions and circumstances of the claim. If, for instance, you’re being sued for your involvement in a car accident, but the complaint does not allege the location of the accident took, the date of the accident or whether there was negligence, the Defendant can file a Motion for More Definite Statement. If the judge grants the motion, he or she will allow the Plaintiff the right to amend the complaint to better and more completely phrase the claim- usually within ten to twenty days of the date when the judge granted the Motion for More Definite Statement.
Lack of Personal Jurisdiction
If you’re been served with a lawsuit filed in the state of Florida but you have little to no connection to the state, you may decide to file a motion to dismiss based on a lack of personal jurisdiction. This motion must be filed either with or before the answer is filed. If it is not timely asserted by a defendant, the defense is waived by the defendant.
As an example, let’s say that a resident of Ohio is visiting Florida during a vacation. During the trip, you end up hitting the Ohio resident’s car and cause a car accident. Later the Ohio resident goes back home and sues you for damages he suffered during the accident. If he files a lawsuit in the state of Ohio, the case can be dismissed because you have no connection to Ohio. However, you can be sued in Florida because you reside here and that’s where the accident occurred. Likewise, if the Ohio resident was visiting Florida and is alleged to have caused the accident, the Ohio resident is subject to personal jurisdiction in Florida as he is alleged to have committed a tort in Florida.
Affirmative defenses include (not a complete list):
- accord and satisfaction
- arbitration and award,
- assumption of risk,
- contributory negligence,
- discharge in bankruptcy,
- failure of consideration,
- injury by fellow servant,
- res judicata,
- statute of frauds, and
Filing a Counterclaim
The third function of an answer to a lawsuit gives you the right to file a counterclaim against the plaintiff.
A counterclaim is a claim or cause of action that you file against the plaintiff who sued you, usually for compensation. When you file a counterclaim, it and the original claim against you are heard by the same Judge, in the same case.
Counterclaims have their own rules that must be followed. Read Rule 1.170 of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure on Counterclaims and Crossclaims for more information.
We’ve described what you should and must do when you’re served with a lawsuit. Here’s what you shouldn’t do: Do not avoid service. If you suspect you are going to be served with a lawsuit, do not hide and hope that the lawsuit will be delayed or dismissed.
Most often, the summons can legally be left at the defendant’s home and handed to someone living in the home who is 15-years old or older.
If the service of process reaches this point, avoiding the summons and complaint becomes riskier for the defendant. Remember, the 20-day clock starts ticking once you receive the summons and complaint. In cases where the defendant is avoiding the service, the court can presume that the lawsuit is brought to your attention by bringing it to a person living in your home.
The same holds true when serving a summons in a gated community. Florida law requires that the guard outside of a gated community allow unannounced entry to the process server if the person serving the summons can show proof that the defendant lives there.
If you’ve been served with a lawsuit, even if you weren’t physically handed the documents, you need to respond with your answer within the timeframe listed on the summons.
The next step is the discovery phase where both parties are asked to provide further documentation or testimony to support either or both of the plaintiff’s and defendant’s cases.
This is when depositions happen (as well as interrogatories, requests for production, requests for admissions, etc.). During a deposition, both parties, as well as witnesses, lay and expert, are asked questions, under oath, about the case.
From there, the case can settle, go to mediation, or go to trial where a judge, or jury, will make a final verdict on the case and determine what (if any) damages will be awarded.
As you can tell, there’s nothing simple or straightforward about answering a lawsuit. If you’ve been served with a summons and complaint, make sure to consult with an experienced Florida trial lawyer to learn about the litigation process. They’ll be able to discuss any affirmative defenses you may have and/or the likelihood of prevailing at a motion to dismiss hearing.
Most Board-Certified Civil Trial Experts, like Alan Sackrin, will offer a free initial consultation (over the phone or in-person) to answer your questions. When you’re ready to speak with an expert civil trial lawyer about your case, give Alan a call at 945-458-8685.