A default judgment in an Indiana personal injury lawsuit can occur when there is a failure to take action by one of the involved parties. In most cases, it’s a judgment in favor of the plaintiff (the injured person) when the defendant (the tortfeasor/alleged wrongdoer) has failed to respond to a summons or appear in court.
This was exactly what occurred in a recent Gary injury lawsuit considered by the Indiana Court of Appeals. The case involved a grocery store injury at the store involving a defective shopping cart.
The appellate court records don’t spell out many details from the original complaint, except that the plaintiff suffered injuries as a result of using a malfunctioning shopping cart at the store. She filed a personal injury lawsuit against the store, alleging they were liable for her injuries on the basis of premises liability.
The summons for the complaint was addressed to the “highest executive officer found on site” and was served by the local sheriff’s department at the store, and it was also mailed via certified mail – with return receipt requested – to the site. The sergeant who delivered the summons received the return receipt, although it was noted the signature was illegible.
About six months later, after having received no answer to the complaint, the plaintiff sought entry of a default judgment – which the court granted three months later, with a damages hearing two months after that, awarding $500,000 to the plaintiff for her injuries.
Courts do not generally favor default judgments because the theory is the best outcomes occur when both sides have a chance to adequately represent themselves and present their respective cases. However, appellate courts will usually only reverse a default judgment if there is evidence of some procedural error or a legitimate reason why the person failed to timely answer or appear. The system can’t wait around forever for litigants to participate.
In this case, following the default judgment in favor of the plaintiff, the plaintiff filed a motion to enforce, and it was only after this point that an attorney representing the grocery store appeared in court and filed a motion to set aside the default judgment. He argued the default judgment was void under state trial rules for lack of personal jurisdiction, based on numerous defects in the service of the summons. Furthermore, he alleged the failure to respond was the result of excusable neglect.
The trial court denied the defense motion to set aside the judgment, and the defendant appealed.
The appellate court cited previous case law and noted default judgment is an extreme remedy available only when a party fails to defend or prosecute a case. In general, motions to set aside are reviewed for a trial court’s abuse of discretion.
Proper service of a lawsuit is guaranteed under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which requires constructive notice of the lawsuit be sufficient. That means the serving party must exercise due diligence in locating the litigant’s whereabouts. In this case, the summons was delivered by a sergeant who worked as a process server for six years and served hundreds of subpoenas. The store claimed it never received a summons – either as delivered by the sergeant or by certified mail. The court found the sergeant followed the letter of state trial rules, as evidenced by the copy of the summons with a stamp indicating it had been delivered, as well as the return receipt. Therefore, the appeals court said it couldn’t say the trial court abused its discretion in denying the store’s motion to set aside.
The $500,000 Gary personal injury judgment will stand.
Indiana Injury Attorney Burton A. Padove handles personal injury claims throughout northern Indiana, including Highland, Gary and Hammond. Call Toll Free 877-446-5294.
Menard, Inc. v. Lane, Feb. 1, 2017, Indiana Court of Appeals
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Indiana Woman Injured in Fall Gets New Shot at Trial, March 2, 2017, Indiana Personal Injury Attorney Blog