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You’ve Been Served – But By Whom?

A lawsuit is initiated the day it is filed with the court. But the rules of law usually require that before your requested relief can be granted the other side gets their day in court. This is the fundamental basis of our legal system. It is one predicated not only on the laws and statutes developed, but also on providing fair and adequate notice for the party being complained of to come to court and answer the allegations. Therefore, the first big hurdle for getting legal remedy is giving the defendant notice that they are the subject of a lawsuit. This first hurdle is often called process and service of process.

Process is the actual documents of a complaint. It details the nature of the lawsuit and the nature of the complaint and when, where, and how to go to answer the allegations in the complaint. There are many rules as to what needs to be in the process in order to give the defendant sufficient notice. Then the defendant needs to be served with the process—literally, the defendant needs to know that he is being sued. There are also many rules as to how the process is served on the defendant. Here, we talk about one method of service of process on an individual who may be evading service.

The rules of civil procedure in North Carolina allow customary service by “some proper person.” (Rule 4.). The enumerated proper person in this state is the sheriff of the county where service is to be made. This means that if your defendant resides in Wake County, service must be by the Wake County sheriff or a deputy. Typically, the sheriff will only serve the defendant at the address listed on the summons. They may attempt multiple times and will also leave notices to contact the sheriff at their location. But for someone evading service or for someone that is infrequently at the residence on the summons, it can be very hard to get the defendant served.

In this circumstance, when the service by sheriff is returned unserved (unsuccessful), our rules of civil procedure also allow service to be effectuated by anyone who is at least 21 years old, who is not a party to the case, and who is not related by blood or marriage to a party to the case or to a person upon whom service is to be made (Rule 4(h1)). This is where a private investigator (PI) may be the best option. PIs are able to track down defendants and coordinate with parties and attorneys to effectuate service. This makes them more flexible than sheriffs and sometimes more effective in cases where the defendant is actively evading the sheriff. In such cases, the PI can attempt service on the person themselves by delivering the defendant the summons and complaint in person once they track and find them (Rule j(1)(a)).

Coordination is also a benefit; if the service is complicated or sensitive, PIs, clients, and attorneys can orchestrate service so that other considerations or conditions can be met. As an example, if you do not want a third party, such as children, to see a fully uniformed sheriff approach the door and knock to deliver papers, you can orchestrate a specific time and place in which a PI can deliver papers in privacy. However, a PI is usually a more expensive option. If service evasion or a sensitive issue is at play in your case, speak to your attorney about alternative service methods.