Tucker v. Williams – $3.3M Default Judgment Set Aside

In most South Carolina car accident lawsuits, the case will involve the filing of a complaint by the plaintiff, followed by an answer from the defendant(s). Then there is usually a discovery process in which both sides gather information and evidence, including witness statements through depositions and expert witness testimony. From there, the settlement negotiations are likely to begin. If the parties are unable to reach a settlement agreement, the case will then go to trial. Most cases are settled before trial.caraccident4

There is a small chance, however, that the court could enter a default judgment. This is a binding judgment that can be entered on behalf of either party and is based on some failure to take action by that party. Most often, it occurs as a judgment in favor of the car accident victim when the defendant doesn’t respond to the summons or fails to appear in court. This can save the plaintiff the expense of having to endure the trial, while still resulting in a favorable outcome. But don’t get your hopes up: The court system does not favor default judgments. Courts have long held that the best way to resolve disputes is to give both parties a fair chance to resolve the issue head-to-head. If one party isn’t there to represent themselves, they are at a clear disadvantage.

Still, courts do occasionally issue default judgments when a fair chance to respond has been given and is ignored. This was what the trial court in the recent case of Tucker v. Williams held when it awarded $3.3 million in damages to a car accident victim and her husband in a default judgment after the defense failed to participate in the proceedings. However, the Mississippi Supreme Court recently overturned that default judgment for abuse of discretion. This does not necessarily mean the plaintiff has lost, but rather that the defense should be given another opportunity to defend himself at trial.

The facts of this case are that plaintiff and her husband allege plaintiff was severely injured in a motor vehicle accident in 2007 caused by defendant. It is alleged that plaintiff was driving a rental car and was in the left turn lane facing north. She turned left and as she did so, defendant, driving across the southbound lane, struck plaintiff. Plaintiffs assert that defendant recklessly and negligently failed to maintain a proper lookout and also failed to yield to oncoming traffic.

As a result of the crash, plaintiff suffered numerous back and facial fractures and facial lacerations. It’s also alleged plaintiff suffers permanent, chronic pain and emotional distress. She sought damages for medical bills, physical pain, mental anguish, loss of life enjoyment, lost employment and lost wages.

Approximately three years later, just shy of the statute of limitations, plaintiffs filed their lawsuit, with the wife alleging severe personal injuries and husband asserting loss of consortium.

Four months after filing that complaint, plaintiffs sought the entry of a default judgment for failure to plead, answer or otherwise defend. The clerk entered a default against defendant that same day and plaintiffs then filed an application for default judgment on the issues of liability and damages.

The next month, defendant responded with a motion to set aside the entry of default, arguing that his insurer was only notified of the default via property damage arbitration. He further asserted he had a defense with merit and the plaintiffs weren’t prejudiced by delay. In the interest of justice, he argued, the judgment should be set aside.

The court declined to set aside the judgment and denied his motion for reconsideration. This was despite the fact that defendant pointed to evidence of a settlement agreement reached by the parties in 2008 in U.S. District Court in which he sued the plaintiff, arguing she was actually the party at-fault. Indeed, she had settled with defendant in that matter for $400,000. He noted that he did not realize the communication he received was because he was now a defendant in a lawsuit filed by plaintiff. He also presented an accident reconstruction report that indicated plaintiff was at fault.

However, because defendant could not provide a reason for his failure to answer right away, the court refused to set aside the default and entered a judgment for $3.3 million.

On appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed.

Although the court found that defendant’s confusion about the paperwork he received was not an excuse for his lack of action, it was in the best interests of justice to set aside the default judgment and plaintiff was not prejudiced by this delay. Further, defendant has one of two meritorious defenses, namely that of res judicata, which is the principle that the same claim cannot be litigated twice.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Tucker v. Williams , Aug. 4, 2016, Mississippi Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Texting and Driving: An Ongoing Scourge on Carolina Roads, Aug. 7, 2016, Greenville Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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