Jill Kolodner | February 8, 2021 | Maryland Law
When a lawsuit is filed, whether it is a car accident, medical malpractice, or workers’ compensation case, a copy of the lawsuit must be physically delivered to the person being sued. The formal legal term for this delivery is “service of process” and one person authorized by courts to make service is called a “process server”.
What Is Service of Process?
If you’re wondering what, exactly, a process server can do to serve papers, it can help to understand the legal procedure called service of process. Service of process is only valid if it is delivered by a method authorized by the court.
Maryland district court rules govern service of process in state district courts. Other courts have different rules.
In most places, courts authorize the officers of certain local law enforcement agencies to make service. But the sheriff’s or constable’s deputies cannot always successfully deliver the paperwork. Usually, the officers will make a specified number of attempts (three to five). If they are unable to deliver the paperwork to the person being sued, they return it to the clerk of court.
When deputies cannot deliver service, it is sometimes because the defendant is dodging service. In other words, they are actively avoiding or even hiding from the officers attempting to serve them. In these cases, a process server may be appointed to make service.
Why Avoiding Service Won’t Work
Some people have the idea that avoiding the delivery of the lawsuit will, in effect, help them avoid the lawsuit. This is not true. While service of process is a matter of Constitutional due process, courts authorize alternative methods for service.
There are multiple alternative methods for service, depending on the court involved. Some alternative methods for service include:
- Service on a lawyer appointed by the court to represent the defendant’s interest
- Service by Registered or Certified U.S. Mail
- Service by publication
All alternative methods of service may not be appropriate in all cases.
For example, in a dog bite case, a different method of service may be appropriate for the homeowner than for the homeowner’s insurance company. An attorney can ensure proper service methods are used.
But process servers have a variety of tools available to them in their work. Let’s look at them.
What Things Is a Process Server Permitted to Do?
What a process server can do is governed by the law of the state where they work. Within the boundaries of the state’s laws, process servers can take creative steps to make service.
When you hire a process server to make service, you are responsible for providing information about the defendant that can help the process server find them. Information used includes:
- The location of the defendant’s last known physical address
- The location of the defendant’s current place of work or business
- Any location or address where the defendant may be (friend or family member’s home)
In rare cases, it may even be useful to let the process server know where the defendant is known to eat lunch or play golf.
Can a Process Server Wait Outside a Home or Workplace?
A sheriff’s deputy will knock on the door of a home to make service. By the time a process server gets involved, it is usually not effective to knock. The defendant won’t answer.
Process servers must physically locate the defendant to serve them. To make service, a process server may:
- Wait in a public place outside a home, like a park or sidewalk
- Enter a public workplace or wait in the public parking lot of a workplace
- Knock on the door of any residential home where the defendant may be present
Front doors to homes that are generally accessible to the public, and the path of ingress, are called the “curtilage” of a home. It is legal for a process server, or anyone, to access the curtilage to knock on the door.
A process server has one job: to physically locate a defendant and physically deliver the lawsuit. A process server can take any legal actions necessary to find the defendant, including waiting for the defendant in a publicly accessible place.