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Starting the Case: Initial Court Papers

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 civil lawsuit. Please note that some states have different names for some of these documents.


Usually the first document filed in a lawsuit is the Complaint (or Petition), which provides an outline of the plaintiff's (petitioner's) case against the defendant (respondent). 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 he or she wants the court to order the defendant to do -- such as pay damages or take (or cease) a certain action.

The purpose of the Complaint is to provide the defendant with notice of the factual and legal grounds for 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 only a short and plain statement of the plaintiff's claims, so the facts in the Complaint don't necessarily need to tell the whole story as long as they contain sufficient information to satisfy the elements of each cause of action upon which the lawsuit is brought.

Summons and Service of Process

The Summons is an order from the court stating where the lawsuit will be heard or "litigated." It notifies the recipient (the "defendant" in the case) that he or she has 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: the case may be decided without the defendant and he or she may be bound by the result even without participating. 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 case identification number for the matter). The body of the document will tell the defendant that he or she has 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 his or her identity and gives them the documents, or when they are mailed to the defendant (if permitted by law).

The legal phrase denoting the delivery of the Summons and Complaint to the defendant is "service of process." The Summons, when 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.


A defendant may respond to a Complaint in different ways, including by making special appearances or motions prior to directly answering the Complaint. The most common 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 contained in the Answer 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.


If a defendant has his or her 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." 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.

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 (indemnify) if you, as a future defendant, are found liable in a case. This person may be brought into the lawsuit if the defendant files a Third-party Complaint for "indemnity" or "contribution." 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.

Have a Lawyer Help Initiate Your Case

It can be very challenging to determine what forms or paperwork to fill out to initiate a lawsuit. Similarly, responding appropriately to a lawsuit can be arduous and confusing. Contact a local litigation attorney today to get professional help with your case.

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