In an injury lawsuit, a default judgment may be issued when there is some failure to take action by one party or another. Most often, we see default judgments issued in favor of plaintiffs when a defendant fails to respond to a summons or has failed to appear before the court.
Although it can seem like good fortune, plaintiffs should be forewarned that default judgments are not favored by the courts and can often be reversed upon an appeal by the defendant if a case can be made for the previous failure to act.
This was the situation in the recent case of Hilyer v. Fortier, before the Alabama Supreme Court. According to court records, this case involved a teenage driver who was injured after crashing into a tractor-trailer loaded with heavy logs that was being backed into a private driveway from a public road. The crash happened in 2013. At the time of the incident, the defendant was blocking both lanes of traffic on the public road. In the vehicle with the teen driver were her brother, her fiance, and a friend.
A few months later, the plaintiff’s mother sued the tractor-trailer driver on her behalf, asserting claims of negligence and wantonness. She alleged that at the time of the tractor-trailer accident, it was after dark, and the truck was blocking both lanes of travel. The defendant allegedly failed to provide an adequate warning to oncoming motorists who were approaching the site that a tractor-trailer was blocking both lanes. There wasn’t adequate lighting on either the truck or the trailer, and the defendant allegedly was negligent in violating certain provisions of state traffic laws.
A summons and copy of the complaint were served on the defendant soon after the complaint was filed. Two months later, the plaintiff filed a motion for a default judgment and requested a hearing on damages.
On the day after that motion was filed, the court entered an order granting the request for default judgment and indicating a hearing on damages would be held within 15 days. The plaintiff asked for damages in the amount of $550,000. She submitted an affidavit noting the injuries suffered by the teen driver and the expenses she had incurred as a result.
In February 2014, the trial court entered a $550,000 judgment against the defendant.
Then, in March 2014, the defendant filed a motion to set aside the default judgment, citing Rule 55(c). In his motion to set aside, he included an affidavit from his neighbor, who witnessed the crash, and an affidavit from the claims manager for his insurer. He also included letters that his attorney had sent to the insurance claims manager, as well as an affidavit from a company defendant hired to investigate the accident and copies of letters that the investigator had sent to the plaintiff’s attorney. The defendant stated that this was something he did regularly, that his road was not very busy, and that he did have his four-way flashers on. He saw the minivan coming, but the driver should have seen his rig, since there was ample lighting, but the van was traveling too fast.
However, the trial court denied this motion. The defendant appealed.
The Alabama Supreme Court reversed. The court looked at the Rule 55(c) motion and decided the defendant had met the threshold in proving he was owed a motion to set aside the default judgment. Specifically, there were questions of fact that had not been considered regarding the service of the original complaint, as well as miscommunications among insurer adjusters, investigators, and attorneys. None of these was the result of the defendant’s own culpable conduct, the court held, and thus the case should be remanded for further proceedings.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Hilyer v. Fortier, Jan. 6, 2017, Alabama Supreme Court
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