All suits begin with a dispute. Then a complaint is filed against the defendant. Next the defendant is served with a summons to come to court. Finally, a judge hears all arguments and then renders a decision. Sounds easy, right? Maybe not as easy as you think, and certainly not so easy if you are suing some type of business. This is where I sit in court and watch people, who are representing themselves against a company, get sent home totally frustrated, by the judge, before a single word about the facts of their case are even heard. Why? Because the plaintiff did not properly sue and/or serve the complaint, upon the defendant, and now the defendant has not received proper notice and is, of course, not present in court.
Example: Ms. Jones slips and falls, in a Kay Jewelers, and she wants to sue, for personal injuries, that amount to less than $20,000.00. First, and due to the amount of the claim, this means that this case will be filed in small claims court. Now let’s get more specific: It’s the Kay Jewelers in Hillcrest Heights, Maryland (no offense Kay’s, just an example). So who is identified, on the complaint form, as the proper defendant? Kay Jewelers, right? Wrong! “That sign you see that says “Kay Jewelers” identifies the trade or brand name and not the actual owner of the company. It’s the corporation that is the owner and who you need to identify as the proper defendant. Not to mention, it’s the corporation that has the insurance policy!
So how do you identify the proper corporation name and who to properly sue? Good Question! Simply search the company name among the business records of the Maryland State Department of Taxes and Assessments (SDAT). There you will discover that, first, the store is actually identified as Kay Jewelers #1149. Second, you will discover that the actual owner is not identified as Kay Jewelers, but as Sterling Jewelers, Inc. Note: Be sure you type the company name, on the complaint, exactly as you see it. For example, if “Incorporated” is not spelled out, in the name, and you spell it out, you could be looking at trouble (this holds true for an individual too – one wrong spelling of the person’s name, and you have technically sued the wrong person). Now you’ve discovered that, Sterling Jewelers, Inc. is the proper defendant. Good job, but you’re not done yet.
You must look further, within the SDAT records, to find out who (or what) is identified as the resident agent. This is the proper person or entity to actually serve the papers upon and who has the legal authority to accept the suit, on behalf of the company. In this case, a subsequent search of Sterling Jewelers, Inc. would reveal that the proper person (or in this case entity), to serve the papers upon, would be “The Corporation Trust Incorporated”, located in Baltimore, MD. Of course, this information would also be identified on your complaint.
The rules relative to proper suit preparation and service relates to individuals and any business (auto mechanic, beauty salon, gas station, etc.) and must be followed strictly. Keep in mind I have discussed only two rules, however, there are many different rules regarding complaint preparation and service upon individuals, corporations (foreign and domestic), incompetent persons, etc. So depending upon the situation of your case, be careful to prepare and serve your complaint correctly, noting that there are also rules regarding how to actually serve the summons and complaint (personal service, registered mail, restricted delivery, etc.). There are also rules regarding the identification and age requirements of who can serve the summons and complaint (if it’s personal service, the plaintiff is not permitted to personally serve the defendant). There are also rules regarding the timing of service and on what days of the week service may be made.
Proper suit filing and service requires attention to detail, but in the long run, will save you time, effort and money. So if you’re going to represent yourself, be sure and read the rules. With reference to small claims, these rules can be found in the Maryland Rules of Civil Procedure §§3-111 thru 3-126. Of course, there are a different set of rules for larger claims that may need to be filed in the circuit court; landlord tenant court; actions relating to domestic violence, etc. Now, once you’ve properly prepared your suit and served it, be sure and be prepared on the day of court – a subject for another blog posting!