You’ve Been Served! But, What Does That Mean?

We’ve all seen a movie where someone is handed a piece of paper and told, “You’ve been served.” But, what exactly does that mean?

In North Carolina, lawsuits are started when a complaint is filed and a summons is issued. Before the lawsuit can be heard by a Judge or Magistrate, the person sued must be properly notified of the pending lawsuit. That’s the simple explanation of “service.” However, the process of serving someone with the paperwork is more complicated than just merely saying that the lawsuit exists. Our rules provide different methods of service, which can also vary depending on who your defendant is. The rules generally seem easy to follow, but involve many nuances that, if not done properly, can prevent your lawsuit from moving forward.

The two most common defendants in a lawsuit are individual people and business entities (corporations, limited-liability companies). Below is an overview of how these types of defendants may be served. Note that if you are trying to serve the State or local governmental agency, an insurance company, or an out-of-state entity, it is a good idea to contact an attorney at Black, Slaughter and Black to ensure proper service.

A person may be served in the following ways:

(1) By delivering a copy of the summons and complaint directly to the person or by leaving copies of the summons and complaint at the defendant’s home with a person of “suitable age and discretion” who also resides at the property. Note: this means that the paperwork can be left at defendant’s home with a defendant’s spouse, parent, sibling, or roommate, as long as that person lives there as well. However, it cannot be left at the defendant’s house with a minor or some visitor passing through.

(2) By delivering the summons and complaint to an agent authorized by law to accept service on the defendant.

(3) By mailing a copy of the summons and complaint either (a) registered or certified mail, return receipt requested or (b) by signature confirmation as provided by the United States Postal Service, addressed to the defendant and delivering it to the addressee. Federal Express, adult signature required, is also proper.

A business may be served in the following ways:

(1) By delivering the summons and complaint to an officer, director, or managing agent of the corporation or by leaving copies of the documents in the office of the officer, director or managing agent with the person who is apparently in charge of the office.

(2) By delivering a copy of the summons and complaint to an agent authorized by appointment or by law to be served or to accept service of process. Companies authorized to do business in North Carolina register with the North Carolina Secretary of State and identify their “Registered Agent”, who is authorized to accept service. You can determine the Registered Agent by visiting the North Carolina Secretary of State’s website and searching the legal name of the business for whom you are suing. *Note, when you file a lawsuit against a business, be sure to use the company’s full legal name, which may be slightly different than the name they are commonly known as. This can also be verified by visiting the North Carolina Secretary of State’s website.

(3) By mailing a copy of the summons and complaint either (a) registered or certified mail, return receipt requested or (b) by depositing with a designated delivery service authorized by statute, addressed to the officer, director or agent.

Service by publication is a last resort that can be used only if you have been unsuccessful in serving the defendant in the methods described above. This method of service requires that notice of service of process by publication is published once a week for three successive weeks in a newspaper that is qualified for legal advertising and circulated in the area where the defendant is believed to be located. If you do not have reliable information regarding the location of the defendant, you can publish in a newspaper circulate in the county where the action is pending. Keep in mind that the whole purpose behind serving the defendant with the summons and complaint is to make sure that the defendant knows of the lawsuit and has the opportunity to defend themselves, if they so desire. As such, the rules require that you mail a copy of notice of service of process by publication to defendant at or immediately prior to the first publication. Service of process by publication is expensive (you have to pay the newspaper), tricky and not favored with the Courts. Before you attempt service by publication, contact the attorneys at Black, Slaughter & Black in either our Greensboro or Charlotte offices for assistance.