If you cannot settle the case with the dog owner’s insurance company, the next step is to start a lawsuit in court. Documents, called pleadings, must be filed in court along with a fee paid to the court clerk. These pleadings are called the summons and complaint. The summons informs the person being sued that a lawsuit is being filed and that a response to the lawsuit is due within a certain period of time (usually 20 days). The complaint describes the particular cause of action or legal theory that is being alleged against the person being sued, along with a description of the facts that support that theory. A complaint must be reasonably specific and inform the person being sued of the specific grounds supporting the claim.
The person who files a lawsuit is called the plaintiff. The dog owner who is being sued is called the defendant. The plaintiff must arrange to serve personally a copy of the summons and complaint on the defendant. The plaintiff only has a certain amount of time to settle the claim or file a lawsuit and then personally serve the defendant. In Washington, this time is usually 3 years from the date of the incident giving rise to the claim. This deadline is called the statute of limitations. In claims involving minor children, the statute of limitations period is usually tolled (delayed) and will not start to run until the child’s 18th birthday. Then the child has three years until his or her 21st birthday to settle the claim or file a lawsuit.
It is a dangerous practice to wait until the statute of limitations period is about to expire before settling a claim or filing a lawsuit. If a lawsuit is filed right before the deadline and if the defendant cannot be found, or if the wrong defendant is served, the case could be dismissed and the plaintiff would get nothing. For this reason, it may be prudent to hire an attorney well before the statute of limitations expires.
Many attorneys will refuse to accept a case when the statute of limitations period is about to expire because there may be insufficient time to investigate the case, file suit, and locate and personally serve the proper defendant. As such, it is in your best interest and in the best interest of that case as a whole, to get a lawyer as soon as possible.