Suing someone is usually done with the hope of financial restitution. But what if the person you want to sue has no money or assets at all? Can you still bring a lawsuit against them? And what’s the point if you can’t collect anything in the end anyway?
These are common questions that come up when considering legal action against a broke defendant. While it may seem pointless to sue someone with empty pockets, there are some legitimate reasons you might want to do it anyway. This article will explore the ins and outs of suing a penniless defendant.
Why Bother Suing Someone With No Money?
There are a few motivations that tend to drive lawsuits against defendants with no ability to pay:
Seeking Justice and Accountability
For some plaintiffs, it’s not always about the money. The principle of the matter is more important. Even if you can’t squeeze any cash out of the defendant, you can still hold them legally accountable for any wrongful actions through the justice system.
Suing can be a way to make a statement and ensure the perpetrator faces consequences. The court validating your claim provides a sense of justice being served, regardless of collecting on the judgment or not.
Future Payment if Assets are Acquired
Another reason to sue is that it puts a judgment on record against the defendant. Then, if they come into money or assets down the road, you can take legal steps to seize those funds or property to satisfy the outstanding judgment.
So you may not collect immediately when suing a broke defendant. But the judgment leaves open the possibility of payment in the future if their financial situation improves.
Sending a Message and Proving a Point
Sometimes just making a statement and proving your point in court is enough, even if you know collecting will be impossible.
The lawsuit and trial process can draw attention to unethical behavior and serve as a warning to the defendant and others not to continue that conduct.
Summary of Reasons to Sue
In summary, reasons you might proceed with suing someone broke include:
- Achieving a sense of justice for wrongs committed
- Having a judgment in place to collect on later
- Sending a message and proving a point with the lawsuit
Even if you don’t get money damages, these other forms of restitution and accountability can make suing worthwhile.
How Does Suing a Broke Defendant Work?
The process for suing and prosecuting a lawsuit is essentially the same whether the defendant has money or not. Here are the basic steps:
Filing the Lawsuit Paperwork
The first step in any lawsuit is for the plaintiff (the one suing) to file a complaint with the appropriate court laying out the claims against the defendant. This complaint sets forth why you are suing and what damages you are seeking.
The plaintiff must properly file the complaint and other documents and pay required court fees. The rules and process are identical regardless of the defendant’s financial standing.
Serving the Defendant
After filing the complaint with the court, the next step is to officially notify the defendant that they are being sued. This is done through proper legal service of process by delivering the summons and complaint documents.
Again, the rules for serving a broke defendant are the same as someone with deep pockets. Proper legal procedures must be followed. If you can’t locate the defendant to serve them, the court may allow alternative service methods like by mail or posting a notice in the newspaper.
The Defendant’s Response
Once served, the defendant has a set timeframe to respond to the lawsuit, either by filing an answer admitting or denying the allegations, or a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed.
If the defendant does not respond properly by the deadline, then the plaintiff can seek a default judgment against them. This means the plaintiff essentially wins automatically because the defendant did not contest the case.
A broke defendant is less likely to mount any defense or response. If they have no money, they probably can’t afford an attorney either, so many simply will not show up and get a default judgment rather than fight the case.
Default Judgments Are Common
Because impoverished defendants frequently don’t formally respond to the lawsuit, it is very common for plaintiffs suing broke individuals to obtain default judgments against them.
The plaintiff can provide proof to the court that the defendant was properly served but did not answer the complaint. Then the judge formally enters a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff.
So getting a legal judgment is usually not too difficult when the defendant has no money to put up a defense or response. But collecting on that judgment is another story…
Summary of the Lawsuit Process
In summary, the process to sue and get a judgment against someone with no money generally follows these steps:
- Plaintiff files complaint and pays fees
- Defendant is served with lawsuit papers
- Defendant fails to respond so default judgment entered
- Plaintiff proves to court defendant did not respond
- Court awards default judgment to plaintiff
The judgment provides accountability but collecting remains a challenge.
Trying to Collect on a Judgment
With the default judgment in hand against a broke defendant, now the plaintiff has to try to collect or execute on it to obtain any monetary compensation. This is where things get tricky when suing an indigent person.
Some collection methods that a judgment creditor (the plaintiff) might attempt include:
If the defendant has a job and gets a paycheck, their wages can potentially be garnished where a portion is seized from each pay period. But if the defendant is unemployed or working under the table for cash, there are no wages to take.
Levying Bank Accounts
A judgment creditor can seek to levy or seize funds from the defendant’s bank accounts. But if the defendant has no accounts or only maintains minimum balances, there is nothing to collect this way.
Putting Liens Against Assets
If the broke defendant owns a home, car, or other property, then liens can be placed on those assets to eventually force a sale to satisfy the judgment. But if the defendant rents, uses public transportation, and has no substantial assets, then no liens can be placed.
Seizing Personal Property
Collectors may attempt to enter a defendant’s home and seize any items of value to auction off. But if the defendant barely has any personal property and household items of little value, not much money can be raised this way.
Suspending Driver’s and Professional Licenses
In some states, courts can suspend the defendant’s driver’s, hunting, or professional licenses until monetary damages are paid. But this is punitive and doesn’t raise any money directly.
Summary of Collecting Judgments
As the above illustrates, actually collecting money on a judgment against someone broke is very challenging and unlikely to result in any significant payment. With no wages, bank accounts, assets, or property to take, there are few options.
This is why it is critical to assess if a defendant has any assets or ability to pay before suing. Because if not, winning a lawsuit still means collecting little to nothing in most cases.
Is Suing Someone With No Money Worth It?
After examining the process and unlikely potential to recover damages, is suing someone with absolutely no assets ever worthwhile? There are pros and cons to consider.
- Sense of justice and accountability through the court system
- Having the judgment there if assets are later acquired
- Deterring future bad behavior by defendant
- Sending a symbolic message with the lawsuit
- The time and expenses involved in suing
- Very low likelihood of collecting any monetary damages
- Possibility it emboldens the broke defendant who has nothing more to lose
Depends on the Specific Circumstances
Whether suing a penniless defendant makes sense depends a lot on the specific circumstances of the case. The potential justice or deterrent effect must be weighed against the low odds of collection and time spent.
If money is the primary goal and defendant clearly has no assets, it may not be a wise use of resources. But if holding them accountable is important for justice or creating a record of misconduct, it may be worth pursuing.
Speak with an attorney to get guidance based on the particulars of your situation and motivation for suing. That will provide the best input on deciding if it is worth it or not.
Conclusion and Key Takeaways
Suing an individual with no money or assets can still accomplish some goals but collecting monetary damages will be difficult or impossible. Key takeaways include:
- There are some reasons to sue besides just money, like justice, deterrence, and proving a point.
- The process for suing and obtaining a default judgment is generally the same whether the defendant has money or not.
- Actually collecting anything on the judgment will be challenging with a broke defendant.
- Whether it is ultimately worthwhile depends on the specific circumstances and motivation behind suing.
- Speak to a lawyer to get input about the merits of pursuing a lawsuit in your particular situation.
Just because someone is broke does not automatically make suing pointless. But go in with realistic expectations. A moral or symbolic victory through the courts may be the best you can hope for.