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Starting a Lawsuit: The Complaint and Other Court Documents

The legal papers that are filed in court at the beginning of a lawsuit are called "pleadings." Your attorney will explain pleadings to you in the particular context of your case, but the summary that follows will give you a head start in understanding some of the many documents that may become a part of your lawsuit. Please note that some states have different names for some of these documents.

Filing the complaint and other court documents is just the beginning stage of a lawsuit but can set the stage for the rest of your lawsuit. This article provides a brief overview of these beginning stages.

Starting a Lawsuit: The Complaint

Usually, the first document filed in a lawsuit is the complaint (or petition), which provides an outline of the plaintiff's case against the defendant. The complaint is a document that identifies the parties involved, sets out the legal basis for the court's jurisdiction over the controversy, states the plaintiff's legal claims, and relates the facts giving rise to the claims. The complaint will also contain a section called a demand for judgment or prayer for relief. Here the plaintiff will set forth what they want the court to require the defendant to do, such as pay damages.

The purpose of the complaint is to provide the defendant with notice of the factual and legal bases of the plaintiff's claims. Generally, the facts set forth in the complaint are based on the plaintiff's own knowledge. Sometimes the plaintiff will use the phrase, "upon information and belief" before setting forth some facts. This means that the plaintiff has heard about those facts from someone else, or has formed the belief that the events described in the paragraph happened as described.

Most states require that the complaint set forth a short and plain statement of the plaintiff's claims, so don't be surprised if the facts are sketchy, or if they don't seem to tell the whole story.

Other Initial Court Documents: Summons and Service of Process

The summons is an order from the court where the lawsuit will be heard or "litigated." It notifies the recipient (the "defendant" in the case) that they've been sued, refers to the complaint or petition, and sets out the time limit within which the defendant must file an answer or seek to have the case dismissed. It will also describe the consequences of failing to respond in a timely manner, as the case may be decided without the defendant and they'll be bound by the result even if they did not participate.

Failing to respond to a lawsuit on time will cause a defendant to be "in default."

The summons is usually a form document. It will have a preprinted caption that contains the name of the court, the names of the parties, and a docket number (the court's identification number for the matter). The body of the document will tell the defendant that they have been sued. This language is called the "notice."

The summons will be delivered or "served" on the defendant along with the complaint, either when somebody actually confirms their identity and gives them the documents, or when they are mailed to the defendant. The legal term for this is "service of process." The summons, properly served, gives the court power or "jurisdiction" over the case and over the defendant. That means the court may make decisions about the controversy described in the complaint, and decisions affecting the defendant with respect to the controversy.

Answer to the Complaint

The defendant's response to the complaint is called an answer, though some states use a different word for this document. The answer will address each paragraph in the complaint, and each response will ordinarily take one of three forms: "admitted;" "denied;" or "insufficient knowledge to admit or deny." An answer may also set forth various affirmative defenses, which are legal reasons why the defendant should not be held liable for the plaintiff's damages. Some of these defenses may also be the basis of a motion to dismiss.

States vary on the number of days you have to file an answer so make sure you speak with an attorney right away upon being served with a complaint. This deadline also varies regarding summons.


If a defendant has their own claim against the plaintiff, one which arose out of the same circumstances as those that led to the complaint, it should be raised in the answer in a section titled "counterclaims." In fact, there are some counterclaims that, if not pled within the answer, will be deemed waived by law. As such, it is important to speak with an attorney when preparing an answer to a complaint to ensure that you have included any compulsory counterclaims within the initial answer. The counterclaim will be written in a manner similar to the complaint.

Reply to Counterclaim

If a defendant asserts a counterclaim in the answer, the plaintiff may respond by filing a "reply." The reply will "admit," "deny," or assert that the plaintiff lacks information, just as the original answer did. The reply also may assert defenses, just as the answer did.


Cross-claims arise when there are many parties to the lawsuit and two or more, who are "aligned" as plaintiffs or as defendants, have their own dispute arising out of the transaction or occurrence. For example, if Driver B and Driver C are sued by Driver A after a multiple-vehicle accident, and Driver C was actually injured by something Driver B did, Driver C might file a cross-claim against Driver B, within the same lawsuit.

Answer to Cross-claim

The person being sued in a cross-claim will file an answer similar to the one filed after the original complaint. The defendant will want to consider the various defenses available to them with regard to the claim.

Third-party Complaint

Sometimes a defendant who has been sued will have a legal reason for passing liability off to another person. A common example is a contract in which the third party promises to pay if you, the defendant, is found liable in a case. This person may be brought into the lawsuit if the defendant files a third-party complaint. Like the regular complaint, it will set forth the relevant facts giving rise to the defendant's claim against the third party and will set forth a request for relief.

Answer to Third-party Complaint

The person being sued through a third-party complaint must file an answer, similar to the one filed after the original complaint.

Starting a Lawsuit or Getting Sued? Get Legal Help

If you plan on starting a lawsuit, you should make sure you're positioned to win your case. Otherwise, why bother? Contact an experienced personal injury attorney who can help you properly -- and effectively -- file the initial complaint and other court documents.

On the other hand, if you are the party being sued, you will want to speak to a defense attorney immediately. They will help guide you through the legal process of filing an answer, exploring affirmative defense or counterclaim options available, and help ensure you meet the requisite deadlines for doing so.

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