What is an “answer”?

In a civil lawsuit case, the answer is the defendant’s response to the plaintiff’s complaint. Once the plaintiff or his attorney has served the defendant in a personal injury case by presenting the defendant with a copy of the summons and complaint, the defendant has a certain number of days (depending on a variety of factors, but typically not fewer than 20) in which to respond. Most defendants respond by filing an answer.

The answer gives the defendant a chance to respond to each claim the plaintiff makes in the complaint. The defendant can also raise affirmative defenses or raise additional claims related to the plaintiff’s case, either by making a counterclaim against the plaintiff, a cross-claim against another defendant, or by bringing up a third-party claim that names someone not mentioned by the plaintiff. If the plaintiff has named more than one defendant, each defendant usually files his, her, or its own answer.

In his answer, the defendant must respond to every claim the plaintiff makes. Typically, courts assume that if the defendant does not expressly deny a claim, then the defendant admits that that claim is true. To prevent the defendant from accidentally admitting a claim that lets the plaintiff win, most answers address each claim the plaintiff makes separately, and also include a catch-all statement saying that every claim not expressly admitted to is denied.

Often, the defendant will admit to any information in the complaint that isn’t in dispute. For example, defendants will often admit the allegations that describe the defendant’s name and address and that the court has proper jurisdiction. A defendant may also admit to certain facts involved in the case that aren’t in dispute. For instance, a defendant in a products liability case might admit that it manufactures a certain product, or a defendant in a medical malpractice case may admit that the plaintiff was one of her patients or that she treated the plaintiff for a certain condition. Defendants often admit to these facts so that the case can focus on where the plaintiff and defendant disagree, instead of wasting time proving facts everyone acknowledges are true.

In some cases, the defendant may not know whether or not a particular claim the plaintiff makes is true. When this happens, the answer will state that the defendant does not have enough information to admit or deny the claim. Some courts require a defendant to use very specific wording when making these statements. If the statements don’t contain the right words, the court may throw them out and consider the claims admitted.

In addition to admitting or denying the claims listed in the plaintiff’s complaint, an answer might also include a list of affirmative defenses. An affirmative defense is a fact or law that prevents the plaintiff from winning the case or reduces the amount of compensation the plaintiff can receive. Often, an affirmative defense blocks or reduces the plaintiff’s compensation even if all the plaintiff’s claims are true. Since a defendant can only use an affirmative defense in court if it appears in the answer, most answers list every possible affirmative defense, even if most or all of them do not actually apply to the case.

If the complaint doesn’t state any combination of claims that would allow the plaintiff to win, the defendant might not file an answer. Instead, the defendant might choose to file a Motion to Dismiss. A motion to dismiss argues that the court should throw out the case because there is no way the plaintiff can win. That is, even if every claim in the complaint is true, the plaintiff has not pleaded a necessary element that would allow him to recover.

For example, suppose that a plaintiff files a negligence claim against a defendant. The complaint states that the plaintiff was waiting to cross a street when the defendant ran a red light, driving through the crosswalk in front of the plaintiff. After the defendant drove past, the plaintiff stepped in a pothole, breaking her ankle.

The defendant may file a motion to dismiss against this complaint because the plaintiff has failed to explain how the defendant’s negligence in driving through the red light caused the plaintiff’s broken ankle. Unless the defendant’s negligence directly caused the plaintiff’s injury, the plaintiff cannot recover damages from this defendant. Even if the entire event happened just as the plaintiff claims, she cannot win in court because she has not pleaded every element of a legal negligence claim.

If a defendant does not respond to a complaint at all, either by filing an answer, a motion to dismiss, or a similar response, the plaintiff may ask the court to enter a default judgment against the defendant. A default judgment is an automatic loss for the defendant. The risk of losing by default is a strong incentive for defendants to respond to a complaint before the deadline arrives.

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