How to Defend Yourself in a Property Damage Lawsuit
If you're involved in an incident in which someone's personal property is damaged or destroyed, he or she may file a lawsuit against you to recover money for the loss of or damage to that property. Often, these lawsuits are filed in small claims court, where you can and in some states are required to represent yourself rather than hiring an attorney. To defend yourself in a property damage lawsuit, you must defeat the plaintiff's claim that his or her property was more likely than not damaged as a result of your actions or carelessness.
Responding to the Complaint
Read the complaint and summons.You must read the summons and complaint if you want to understand who is suing you and why.
- On the summons, you'll find the name and contact information of the person suing you. The summons also may tell you when you need to appear in court and provide a deadline by which you must respond to the lawsuit.
- The complaint details the plaintiff's allegations against you and why he or she believes the court should order you to pay money for it.
- It's important that you calculate the deadline to file your response accurately. Typically the period of time will start on the date you were served with a summons and complaint. In civil court you may have as long as 30 days, but in small claims court you may have only a few weeks.
- The complaint and summons also will provide the name and location of the court where the plaintiff filed his or her lawsuit. If the court is far away, you should question whether it has jurisdiction over you.
- You also should check the statute of limitations in your state for property damage lawsuits. If too much time has elapsed between the damage to the plaintiff's property and the date he or she filed suit, you may be able to get the lawsuit dismissed.
Check for forms or templates.Most courts, especially for small claims, have fill-in-the-blank forms you can use to respond to a complaint.
- Some courts provide an answer form to you along with the complaint and summons if the lawsuit was filed in small claims court.Otherwise, you may have to check the court's website or contact the clerk of court to find a form.
- If you're writing your responses onto a form by hand rather than typing them, you may want to write them out first on scratch paper and then copy so you make fewer mistakes. Make sure you're filling out any court forms in pen.
- If there are no forms available, ask the clerk for copies of answers filed in the same court for other cases that you can use as guides for formatting your own answer.
Evaluate the allegations.You must indicate in your answer whether you admit or deny each allegation set forth in the complaint.
- The allegations typically will be set forth in numbered paragraphs. All you have to do is write one-word answers – "admit" or "deny" – for each number. However, make sure you respond to each one. If you skip a number, the court will treat that as though you admitted that allegation.
- You also can write that you "lack sufficient information to either admit or deny the allegation." The court treats this response the same as a denial.
- Don't worry about denying an allegation even if you know it's true. Keep in mind the plaintiff has the burden of proof, and when you deny an allegation you're simply forcing the plaintiff to prove it. If the plaintiff doesn't have enough supporting evidence, you'll win on that point.
- At the same time, don't be afraid to contact the plaintiff if you believe his or her lawsuit has merit and you want to take responsibility for the property damage. You may be able to work out a settlement without going to court.
Finalize your answer.Make sure you've proofread your answer before you print and sign it.
- When you're confident with the document, sign and date it using blue or black ink. Then make at least two copies of the signed document. The clerk will keep the original, so you'll need a copy to deliver to the plaintiff as well as a copy for your own records.
File your answer.To officially respond to the lawsuit, you must take your answer to the clerk of the court where the lawsuit was initiated before the deadline listed on your summons.
- Give the clerk both your originals and your copies. He or she will stamp "filed" on all of them with the date, then give the copies back to you.
- Typically you're responsible for serving the plaintiff with a copy – that means you must get someone (usually a sheriff's deputy or an employee at a private process serving company) to hand-deliver the documents. Then the person who delivered the documents will fill out a proof of service form for the court.
- In most cases you also can use certified mail with returned receipt requested. You will have to fill out a proof of service form yourself and file it with the clerk once you've received your receipt notice from the postal service.
Gathering Your Evidence
Review your state's law.Understanding what the plaintiff has to prove can help you figure out defenses as well as areas where you can cast doubt on the plaintiff's claims.
- The key question in a negligence case is whether you acted reasonably. This is a subjective question that depends to a large degree on how your behavior is characterized, particularly when there's no specific law or generally understood rule of conduct that you violated.
- For example, if you caused damage to the plaintiff's car because you hit him after running a red light, it's fairly clear that you were negligent because you ran the red light.
- However, if you damaged his car by opening your door into it when you were parked in the neighboring space, whether you were negligent may be more difficult to determine. Perhaps you parked unreasonably close to his car, or he parked unreasonably close to yours. Perhaps you were arguing with someone on the phone when you got out of your car, and you angrily slammed your door open without regard to whether you hit the other car or not. These details can make all the difference.
- On the other hand, if the plaintiff alleges the damage was intentional, he or she must prove that you meant to cause the damage that you did – or at least that you did it without caring whether it would damage the plaintiff's property as a result.
- Arguing that the damage was intentional requires the plaintiff to delve into your motivations and mental state when the incident occurred that damaged his or her property. A broader context may be necessary to establish intent, including your prior relationship with the plaintiff.
Talk to any witnesses.Anyone who saw the incident in which the plaintiff's property was damaged can potentially testify on your behalf.
- Keep in mind that eyewitnesses can go either way. People often are sympathetic to those whose property is damaged, even if it appeared to happen by pure accident.
- However, the plaintiff probably will be talking to witnesses too. Talking to them yourself – even if you end up not being able to use their testimony in your defense – can give you a head's up as to what they saw and what they might say if called by the plaintiff.
- The plaintiff's claim may determine the types of witnesses you need. For example, suppose the plaintiff alleges that you were negligent in maintaining your pipes, causing the sewer to back up and destroy her prize roses. However, you know your pipes were recently inspected by the city, so you should talk to the city authority responsible for the inspections and get a witness or copies of records from that inspection.
Participate in discovery.Through discovery, you and the plaintiff will exchange information and evidence you plan to use at trial.
- Written discovery involves written questions or production of documents or other evidence. Discovery also may include depositions, in which parties or witnesses are interviewed under oath. A court reporter attends the deposition and creates a verbatim transcript of the questions and answers that can be referenced later.
- If the plaintiff filed his or her lawsuit in small claims court, you may not have a discovery process – but the plaintiff may be required to attach supporting documents or information to the complaint. If you do have discovery, it typically will be limited only to written discovery, although you may be entitled to more if you ask.
Consider going to mediation.Especially for relatively simple cases, mediation can save you a lot of time, money, and effort compared to going to trial.
- With mediation, a neutral third party works with you and the plaintiff to facilitate a mutually agreeable settlement and resolve the dispute.
- Because mediation is non-confrontational, it also may be an attractive option if you want to preserve a positive relationship with the person who sued you.
- You may have to pay a fee to the mediator. However, many courts have mediation services available free of charge. Ask the clerk for a list of court-approved mediators.
Attending Your Trial
Compile your evidence and notes for trial.You want to walk into court prepared by having all the documents and information you need easily accessible.
- Take notes of the points you want to make in your defense and the evidence that corresponds to each point. It's not necessary to organize your presentation chronologically if this isn't helpful to your defense, but doing so may make it easier for you to keep things straight.
- In most cases you'll need to bring at least two copies of any documents or other evidence you want to present in court.
- If you plan on calling witnesses, you'll want to meet with them at least once before trial so you can go over the questions you want to ask them. You also can use that time to brainstorm possible questions the plaintiff may ask during cross-examination so the witness is prepared.
- If you've never been to court and plan to represent yourself, you may want to go to the courthouse one day before your trial and observe cases being heard. If your case is in small claims court, find out when it's in session and observe cases there. That way you'll be familiar with court procedures and the type of behavior expected.
Appear on your court date.If you don't show up at the date and time your hearing is scheduled, the plaintiff may win by default.
- Get to the courthouse at least a half hour early so you have time to go through security and find the right courtroom.You may want to check with the clerk (or on the court's website) to find out what items are prohibited in the courthouse so you don't inadvertently carry anything that could raise flags or delay your entry.
- Since the judge probably will have more than one case scheduled for that day, take a seat in the gallery and wait until the name of your case is called. You and the plaintiff will rise, and if the judge indicates he or she is ready to hear your case you can move to the tables at the front of the courtroom.
Listen to the plaintiff's presentation.Typically the plaintiff is given the first opportunity to establish his or her case for the judge.
- Don't yell out or interrupt the plaintiff while he or she is talking, or attempt to argue with the plaintiff or witnesses. If the plaintiff says something with which you disagree, simply make a note of it so you can bring it up when it's your turn to present your defense.
- If the plaintiff calls any witnesses, you will have the opportunity to ask them questions during cross-examination. Take notes as the plaintiff questions the witness if something comes up that you want the witness to discuss further. However, be careful when asking a question if you don't know how the witness will answer – you could end up hurting your case more than you help it.
Present your defense.After the plaintiff is finished, the judge will listen to your side of the story.
- Speak loudly and clearly so the judge can hear and understand you. Try to strike a balance between delivering your points quickly and emphasizing things that are particularly strong or valuable to your defense.
- Focus your defense based on the theory you're using. If you're denying the plaintiff's claims and attempting to prove otherwise (or at least cast doubt), you may want to follow the same structure the plaintiff used.
- However, if you're using a justification theory, you probably want to focus on the reasons you were justified in acting how you did, and downplay the damage to the plaintiff's property or the chronology of events from the plaintiff's perspective.
- For example, suppose you are being sued because you destroyed part of your neighbor's fence to rescue a child who had fallen into his pool. If your neighbor sues you for the damage to his fence, most people would believe you were justified in breaking down the fence if it was necessary to save a child's life.
Receive an order from the judge.At the conclusion of the trial, the judge will either issue an order immediately or take the matter under advisement.
- If the judge takes the case under advisement, that means he or she wants to look over the evidence presented at trial again before entering a final order. If this happens, ask the clerk when you can expect a final order to be entered and whether you will be notified or expected to call the court yourself.
- If the judge rules in the plaintiff's favor, you may want to evaluate your options in terms of appealing the order or filing some other post-judgment motion such as a motion for a new trial. Keep in mind that courts only provide a limited amount of time – typically less than a month – for you to act on any of these options before the ruling becomes final.
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