A plaintiff starts a personal injury lawsuit by filing in court a document usually called a "complaint," though in some states it's called a "petition." The defendant (the person or business being sued) must respond to the plaintiff's complaint within a certain number of days. The defendant's response is typically called an "answer." Every state (and the federal court system) has court rules that spell out, in general terms, what an answer can or must include.
After reading this article, you'll better understand what an answer does and what it includes. We'll begin with a review of court rules and pleadings generally. From there, we'll look more specifically at what's covered in an answer. Our discussion will explain some defenses that often are raised in a personal injury lawsuit.
Federal and state court rules called the "rules of civil procedure" govern how civil (meaning non-criminal) lawsuits work their way through court. Here's an online version of the 2023 Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. If your lawsuit is in state court, you'll need to follow your state's rules of civil procedure.
The rules describe the different kinds of pleadings—documents filed with the court during a lawsuit—that are allowed. Other rules generally describe what the pleadings can or must include. Federal Rule 8(b), for example, tells you what a responsive pleading like an answer should cover.
When you write and file pleadings, it's very important that you follow the rules of procedure for your case. If you don't, the court can "strike" your pleadings (remove them from the case) or deny you the relief you request. In extreme cases, the court might "sanction" (penalize) you for not following the rules.
Finally, note that in some states, certain pleadings can be filed on court-approved forms. For instance, here's a form answer that's approved for use in certain cases filed in California state courts. If your state has approved pleading forms, using them can simplify the task of writing your pleadings.
In most cases, your answer will include a couple of things:
Typically, your answer responds to the plaintiff's allegations in numbered paragraphs that correspond to the complaint's paragraphs. As to each paragraph of the complaint, you can:
Make sure you've denied every allegation you want to deny. The general rule is that any allegations you don't deny are treated as admitted.
As a rule, your answer must include certain defenses if you intend to raise them. Federal Rule 8(c) provides an example. If you don't include these defenses, the court might treat them as "waived," or relinquished. How do these defenses work?
Suppose you settle a claim with the plaintiff. As part of the settlement, the plaintiff signs a release. Later, the plaintiff tries to include the released claim as part of a lawsuit against you. One defense you'd raise—that usually must be raised in an answer—is that the plaintiff released the claim as part of your earlier settlement.
Here are some defenses that commonly get raised in response to a personal injury complaint.
In almost every case, the defendant argues that one or more of the plaintiff's claims fails to include an essential element. This defense is called "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." The defendant's goal is to have the claim (or the entire lawsuit) dismissed.
Here's an example. One of the required elements of a negligence claim is called "causation." Causation is the crucial link between the defendant's allegedly negligent action and the plaintiff's claimed injuries, showing that the defendant caused those injuries.
Suppose the plaintiff files a medical malpractice case, claiming a doctor negligently failed to properly diagnose lung cancer. The plaintiff claims, as one injury, that their life expectancy is reduced. The plaintiff's complaint must clearly say that the doctor's alleged negligence caused this injury.
If the complaint doesn't properly allege causation, the doctor likely will respond that the cause of the plaintiff's decreased life expectancy is the cancer itself, not anything the doctor did or failed to do. The doctor will raise this as part of their defense that the plaintiff failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
(Learn more about proving fault in a personal injury case.)
Every state has a deadline, called a statute of limitations, for filing lawsuits (including personal injury lawsuits) in court. The statute of limitations is what's sometimes called an "absolute bar" defense. If the court agrees that the statute of limitations expired before the plaintiff filed the case in court, the plaintiff's lawsuit is absolutely barred. The court must dismiss it.
(Learn more about the statute of limitations in all 50 states.)
These are two distinct but sometimes related defenses that are raised in an answer.
This defense seeks to reduce (or in some states, eliminate entirely) the defendant's legal responsibility for the plaintiff's injuries. Specifically, when the plaintiff's own negligence was a factor in the incident that led to the lawsuit, the defendant might raise as a defense the plaintiff's contributory or comparative negligence. Some states follow contributory negligence rules, but most are comparative negligence states.
In a contributory negligence state, the plaintiff's own negligence—even the tiniest amount—will bar the plaintiff's claim entirely. If the accident happens in a comparative negligence state, the plaintiff's negligence reduces the defendant's share of legal responsibility for the plaintiff's damages. In some comparative negligence states, if the plaintiff's own negligence is more than 50% (in some states, 51%) of the total fault, the plaintiff can't collect any damages.
(Learn more about shared fault rules in a personal injury lawsuit, including which rules your state follows.)
Under the law, an injured party has a legal duty to take reasonable steps to "mitigate," or reduce, their damages. A defendant who raises a "failure to mitigate" defense is arguing that the plaintiff failed to take these reasonable steps. If the court agrees, the court can reduce the compensation the defendant must pay by the amount of damages that could've reasonably been avoided.
Here's a quick example. A plaintiff seeking compensation for lost wages probably can't sit back and reject a legitimate job offer if their injuries are no hindrance to performing the available work. Were a personal injury plaintiff to do that, their lost wages damage award could be reduced.
The answer is a document that you're required to file if you're sued in a personal injury lawsuit. If you don't file an answer, the court can award the plaintiff a default judgment and order you to pay the plaintiff's damages. If you file an answer but omit things you should've included, you might admit facts you shouldn't have or waive defenses you wanted to raise.
There's simply too much on the line when it comes to filing your answer in court. The rules of civil procedure are complicated and difficult to understand. The time to learn them isn't after you've been sued. If you're a defendant in a personal injury case and need help preparing your answer, look for an attorney in your area who can assist.