As a plaintiff (or potential plaintiff) in a Broward personal injury case, you may be curious what happens if the party you’re suing simply doesn’t answer or show up. What could happen is a default judgment.
However, as our Broward injury lawyers can explain, that isn’t always the best case scenario. Default judgments are often successfully challenged. And even a Florida default judgment stands, plaintiffs may have a tougher time collecting on them than on cases with more responsive defendants, as the latter are more likely to have financial resources.
What Exactly is a Default Judgment?
To explain a default judgment in an injury lawsuit, we first need to recognize that part of the right to due process – as laid out both in the U.S. and Florida Constitutions – require that the defendant be put on notice of the proceedings and also be given the opportunity to be heard.
When the plaintiff files their injury lawsuit, they will spell out in the complaint exactly who the defendant is, what they did, how this resulted in damage to the plaintiff, and what sort of remedy the plaintiff is seeking. The defendant is considered put on notice when they’ve been served with a copy of the complaint as well as a court summons. That summons spells out clearly what a defendant has to do if they wish to defend the claim. It also tells them what can happen if they choose to outright ignore the lawsuit. The court provides the defendant a certain amount of time in which to formally respond in the form of a motion or answer that denies liability. The summons also lets the defendant know that if they don’t do anything, they might lose their case via default judgment.
Legislators and courts have concluded that justice is best served when all parties are fully informed and actively participating. However, they aren’t expected to wait forever – and unresponsive defendants aren’t rewarded for their lack of participation. Florida Rules of Civil Procedure allow plaintiffs to ask the court to issue a default judgment if the defendant doesn’t file any answer to the lawsuit by the deadline. If the court grants a default judgment, they decide the defendant is liable by default and will issue liquidated damages.
Will I Still Need a Trial After a Default Judgment?
As our Broward injury lawyers can explain, there are basically two reasons your case might still go to trial after a default judgment.
The first of those has to do with unliquidated damages. Unliquidated damages – those not expressly stated in a contract or objectively known and quantifiable – must still be decided by a jury if they aren’t resolved in settlement talks. For example, let’s say you’re injured in a crash. Part of your damages include $5,000 in property damage to the vehicle itself. You get a bill from the auto body shop. Those damages are liquidated. Clear, objective, quantifiable. However, let’s say you’re also claiming damages for the pain and suffering caused by your injuries. These are unliquidated damages. They’re subjective, not easily quantifiable. They must be proven to the court and decided on by a jury.
The second reason you might still end up having the case go to trial following a default judgment is that the defendant successfully challenges that finding. As previously mentioned, courts don’t favor default judgments. They would rather cases be resolved according to merit. For this reason, Florida Rules of Civil Procedure do allow for relief from a default judgment in cases of excusable neglect, surprise, inadvertence, or mistake. In addition, they must also have a meritorious defense – meaning they have a reasonable case to be made about a factual point of contention in the case, such as liability or damages.
Excusable neglect means that they have a good reason for why they didn’t respond in a timely fashion. They can’t simply say, “I forgot.” Examples of excusable neglect might be hospitalizations, emergencies involving immediate family members, or good faith settlement negotiations in which the defense believed no default judgment was being sought. The courts generally wish to avoid wins based on technicalities, though they can happen.
If you are considering filing a personal injury or wrongful death case in South Florida, it’s a good idea to consult with an experienced injury lawyer to fully understand your legal options.
Call Fort Lauderdale Injury Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
ASK JUDGE SMITH: ‘DEFAULT JUDGMENTS AND DAMAGES’, Jan. 3, 2023, By Judge J. Layne Smith, Florida Bar News
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Florida Wrongful Death Lawsuits Bring Closure, and a Safer Future, Aug. 1, 2022, Broward Personal Injury Lawyer Blog