The first responsive pleading filed by the defendant in a civil action; a formal written statement that admits or denies the allegations in the complaint and sets forth any available AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSES.
The answer gives the plaintiff notice of the issues the defendant will raise as the case progresses and enables the plaintiff to adequately prepare a case. In most jurisdictions, the answer must be filed within twenty days after receipt of the summons and complaint, although local rules and customs may dictate different filing times.
The answer begins with a caption, which identifies the location of the action, the court, the docket or file number (assigned by the court), and the title of the case (comprising the names of the parties, e.g., Smith v. Jones). Following the caption, the main body of the answer sets forth admissions or denials that respond to each allegation made in the complaint. In federal court and in jurisdictions that follow the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, denials must be unambiguous and stated in concise language that clearly identifies the allegations being denied (Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(b)). For example, if the complaint alleges that the defendant was driving an automobile that struck the plaintiff on Addison Street in Chicago on March 11, an answer stating that the defendant was in Milwaukee on March 11 is unclear and ambiguous because it avoids the question of whether the defendant was also in Chicago at a different time on the same day.
The answer may plead any form of denial that is truthful and made in GOOD FAITH. Although general denials that deny the truth of every fact in the complaint or of every element of a charge are sometimes used, they are not considered a sufficient response. Courts discourage general denials because they fail to respond to specific allegations and do not give the plaintiff sufficient basis to prepare a case. If the defendant lacks the knowledge or information needed to respond to the truth or falsity of a charge, rule 8(b) and similar rules in other jurisdictions allow the defendant to state such in the answer. This has the effect of a denial (rule 8(b)). If the defendant fails to respond to an allegation by either denying it or by stating he or she does not have the information necessary to admit or deny it, it is considered admitted under rule 8(d).
Following the admissions and denials, the answer outlines any affirmative defenses available to the defendant. Affirmative defenses, which are grounded in SUBSTANTIVE LAW, state that an allegation may or may not be true, but that even if it is true, the law provides a legal defense that defeats the plaintiff's claim. The defendant must determine if the law allows an affirmative defense to a charge, and must allege sufficient facts to support the defense. For example, in a NEGLIGENCE action, the defendant might respond to an allegation that a duty of care was owed to the plaintiff by stating that, even if the allegation is true, the plaintiff assumed the risk of the activity that led to the injury. The defendant must then state the facts that support the defense. It is critical to the defendant's case that all applicable affirmative defenses are asserted. In most jurisdictions, affirmative defenses not raised in a timely manner in the defendant's responsive PLEADING are deemed to have been waived.
The answer, like the complaint, ends with a "wherefore" clause that summarizes the defendant's demands, such as demands for a jury trial and judgment in the defendant's favor. Only one wherefore clause is generally needed, although local practice may dictate that each denial and each affirmative defense have its own wherefore clause.
Counterclaims and cross-claims sometimes appear in the answer. A counterclaim arises when the defendant's response includes a claim against the plaintiff. A counterclaim may come from the same circumstances as the plaintiff's claim or from a different set of facts. A cross-claim may be filed when one party to a suit charges another party with responsibility for the plaintiff's injuries or damages. Under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure rule 13(g), a cross-claim must arise out of "the transaction or occurrence that is the subject matter either of the original action or of a counterclaim therein or relating to any property that is the subject matter of the original action." A cross-claim may also be filed separately from the answer. Because counterclaims
and cross-claims raise new issues and initiate a separate CAUSE OF ACTION, they must meet the procedural requirements of a complaint.
James, Fleming, Jr. 1965. Civil Procedure. Boston: Little, Brown.
McCord, James W.H. "Drafting the Complaint: Defending and Testing the Lawsuit." Practicing Law Institute 447:399.
Witus, Morley. "What Is the Answer? New Guidelines on How to Draft the Answer and Affirmative Defenses." Michigan Bar Journal 73:1076.