Although TV shows love the drama of a courtroom and a trial, most legal matters never make it that far. And in some cases, those that do make it to trial can be cut short through a variety of different motions.
One of the most misunderstood of these motions is the default judgment. Default judgments are fairly easy to avoid as long as your attorney is diligent in tracking deadlines and court appearances.
But once a default judgment is entered against a party, it can be hard to undo. Let’s take a look at how default judgments work in Florida and how an attorney can help you avoid the headaches that come with them.
What Is a Default Judgment?
A default judgment is a ruling granted when one party in a lawsuit fails to perform an action ordered by a court/judge as instructed. When that failure is essential to the proper presentation of the legal dispute in question, the judge will settle the dispute in favor of the cooperating party. This is a default judgment.
There are many reasons that a judge might find cause to enter default judgment against a party, with the most common being that they failed to appear in court despite the judge’s official summons. Another reason a judge might grant a default judgment is for one party’s unwillingness to comply with a discovery (evidentiary) request that is vital to the case.
Once a default judgment is entered against them, many people believe that the case is over and there is nothing that can be done. They assume that there’s no other option but to pay the judgment. But this is not necessarily true.
Defenses to a Default Judgment
Although receiving a default judgment is not a positive development in a legal action, it doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. The Florida Rules of Civil Procedure state, “On motion and upon such terms as are just, the court may relieve a party or a party’s legal representative from a final judgment, decree, order or proceeding for the following reasons: (1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect . . . .”
This statute lays out the road map for possible default relief.
To qualify for this defense, the defaulting party must provide a reason for their failure to respond in a timely manner. Excuses like “I forgot” won’t be adequate to qualify, though. Common excusable neglect examples are usually from major life issues like hospital stays, medical conditions, or immediate family emergencies.
Another possible example is if the parties were engaged in settlement negotiations and one party had a good faith belief that the other party would not seek default judgment. If the facts back this up, a judge may set aside the default. This avoids one side winning on a technicality when the other is attempting to solve the matter outside of a trial setting.
Even if a judge finds excusable neglect, they will not set aside a default judgment unless the party can show that they also had a meritorious defense
A person has a meritorious defense for the purpose of setting aside a default judgment if there is a real dispute of fact or law that needs to be resolved. For example, imagine that a case stems from an auto accident in which both parties claim the other was at fault.
However, the defendant fails to respond to a motion, and the court enters a default judgment against them. If the defendant can’t point to evidence that the other party was at fault, then the court will likely not set aside the default judgment, even if the defendant had a good reason for failing to respond.
But if the defendant has evidence that the other party was actually at fault, then a judge could set aside the default to allow the trier of fact (i.e., a jury) to decide the issue.
But be careful. Talk to an attorney familiar with default judgments in Florida before making any claims.
Due Diligence and Public Policy
After you learn that a default judgment was levied against you, you may still be able to set it aside. If you make diligent attempts to find an attorney or try to submit the necessary documents and paperwork to cure it, a judge may be sympathetic and set the default aside. This all depends on the facts of the situation.
Ultimately, judges don’t like to decide cases purely on procedural technicalities. If you work quickly to find an attorney to cure the default, a judge will at the very least hear you out.
How Can the Attorneys at Emmanuel Sheppard & Condon Help?
Lawsuits are scary, and receiving notice of a default judgment makes the situation worse. At Emmanuel Sheppard & Condon, we know how stressful these situations are for Floridians, and we are here to help.
Our experienced team of personal injury attorneys will work hard to cure any default judgment and make sure you get your day in court. We’re a proud Pensacola institution and have served Floridians for decades. Contact us by calling 850-444-4878 or fill out our online contact form to schedule a free case evaluation today!