A miscommunication between vehicle insurance agents resulted in a default judgment favoring the mother of a tractor-trailer crash victim for $550,000.
However, courts are generally loathe to issue default judgments because it usually means only one side of the case has been presented. Default judgments can survive in some cases, but generally, if a defendant can show he/she has a meritorious defense, the plaintiff won’t be unfairly prejudiced by a reversal and it wasn’t the result of defendant’s culpable conduct, the court will set that ruling aside.
That was the unfortunate realty for plaintiff in Hilyer v. Fortier, who was no doubt hoping to put the entire matter behind them and move on as best as possible. However, now they will have to prepare for either settlement negotiations and/or trial.
This is especially concerning because it’s become clear defendant intends to argue contributory negligence by the injured teen driver. In Alabama, where this case is unfolding, as in North Carolina, the courts recognize a system of pure contributory negligence, which means plaintiffs can’t recover any damages if there is proof their own negligence contributed to or caused the injury.
Here’s what we know of the facts, based on the Alabama Supreme Court records:
In July 2013, defendant was backing his tractor-trailer rig used to transport logs into his private driveway. In so doing, defendant blocked both lanes of traffic on that rural road.
Plaintiff’s daughter, then a minor, was driving her mother’s van on that same road with three teen passengers. Plaintiff slammed into that tractor-trailer rig in the middle of the roadway and sustained serious injuries. (The lawsuit does not indicate injuries to the other people in the van.)
The driver’s mother sued the truck driver, alleging he negligently and wantonly blocked both lanes of travel in the dark while trying to back up his rig. She further alleged he negligently failed to give adequate warnings to approaching motorists of the lane blockage. It was additionally asserted he did not have adequate lighting on his truck or trailer and that he violated state traffic laws.
Copies of the complaint were served to defendant via certified mail, but defendant did not respond. In January 2014, plaintiff filed a motion for default judgment and requested a hearing on damages, and the court agreed to both. Ultimately, plaintiff was awarded $550,000.
Defendant, however, appealed. He attached to his appeal an affidavit from a third-party witness, who indicated the truck’s lights were on and flashing and that defendant began honking the horn as the other vehicle approached. Further, that witness indicated it did not appear the teen driver made any attempt to slow down prior to the crash.
Defendant also attached statements from his insurance company, which indicated a misunderstanding between agents had resulted in each believing the other was handling the claim, and thus no one was actually handling the claim. Meanwhile, defendant believed the insurance company was handling all matters related to his defense.
The court reversed its earlier grant of default judgment, finding there to be merit in defendant’s argument, that a reversal wouldn’t unfairly prejudice plaintiff and that the failure to appear in court wasn’t defendant’s personal mistake or willful action. That reversal was upheld upon appeal to the state supreme court.
Now, this truck accident case has been remanded back to trial court for further proceeding.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Hilyer v. Fortier, Feb. 20, 2015, Alabama Supreme Court
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Train Accidents Problematic in North Carolina, Nation, Feb. 22, 2015, Asheville Car Accident Lawyer Blog