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How We "Serve" a Defendant in a District of Columbia Personal Injury Case

By: Matthew Tievsky

When we have a new client who was injured by the negligence of a wrongdoer, we generally begin by making a claim with the wrongdoer’s insurance company, in an attempt to settle the case. But if the insurance company doesn’t make a reasonable offer to settle, then our next step is to file a lawsuit.

Many people are under the impression that we file the lawsuit against the insurance company, but that’s not technically accurate. It is true that the insurance company controls the money that is at stake. However, the general rule has always been that a lawsuit is filed against the wrongdoer, not his insurance company.

After filing a lawsuit in court, the wrongdoer – called a “defendant” – has a right to be notified of the lawsuit. However, it is not enough to call the defendant on the phone and tell him about the lawsuit, or send a letter or an email. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that the person suing (the “plaintiff”) has to use a method that is “reasonably calculated” to put a copy of the lawsuit itself in the hands of the defendant. By law, the District of Columbia has established a number of particular methods that are permissible (most of which are also used by other jurisdictions).

The most obvious is to find the defendant – usually at his home or workplace – and literally hand the lawsuit to him. This method is also allowed if you literally hand the lawsuit to another adult in the defendant’s home, who lives there.

A second method is to send the lawsuit by certified mail to the defendant, who must personally sign a receipt. This is an effective and inexpensive method to serve a business, which may be at fault for the actions of its employees.

D.C. also has a special law that permits a third type of service, in auto accident cases only: If the defendant caused an automobile collision within the District but lives outside the District, then the District of Columbia can accept the lawsuit on his behalf. The lawsuit only needs to be delivered to the Department of Motor Vehicles, and then notice must be mailed to the defendant’s last known address (outside the District).

The most effective method will depend on the circumstances of the case and the characteristics of the particular defendant. If you have been injured by another person’s wrongdoing and have questions about how we might file a lawsuit on your behalf, you should contact the personal injury attorneys at Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel, P.C., for a free consultation.