In most cases, default judgments are not preferred in injury cases. Whereas a summary judgment may be granted prior to trial as a matter of law, default judgments are granted typically when a defendant(s) fails to timely respond to a complaint or appear in court.
Default judgments are often overturned if a defendant can show good cause why he or she did not respond/appear in court. In the case of Hilyer v. Fortier, the issue came down to a misunderstanding between the defendant and two insurance agents – each of whom though the other was handling the claim and civil defense in the case.
According to court records, a teen was seriously injured in a car accident with a logging truck driven by defendant as the truck was being backed into defendant’s private driveway. It was night. It was dark. The truck was reportedly taking up both lanes of traffic on the rural road as he maneuvered the vehicle into his driveway.
However, defendant insisted he had his hazard lights flashing. There was also, he contends, a reflective strip that ran the length of the truck. A street light was just on the other side of the truck.
When he saw plaintiff’s vehicle approaching, he reportedly began honking the horn and flashing his headlights. However, the teen driver did not stop or even apparently slow down before striking the logging truck.
The teen, who was driving with three other youths in the car, was seriously injured. (The other passengers were not a party to the case.)
The teen’s mother, on behalf of her daughter, filed a lawsuit against defendant alleging negligence by violating state traffic laws and failing to adequately warn approaching passengers.
The crash happened in October 2013. The following month, plaintiff filed a lawsuit against defendant, and he was served within a few days. However, defendant never responded. Two months later, plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment. Defendant did not appear in court at the hearing, and judge granted default judgment to plaintiff.
However, soon after defendant filed a motion to set aside default judgment. In making this request, he asserted, per the “Kirtland Analysis,” he had a meritorious defense, plaintiff would not be unfairly prejudiced if the default judgment were reversed and finally, it was not his own wrongful conduct that had resulted in the default judgment being issued.
On the first point, he argued he had provided adequate warning and further, plaintiff was contributorily negligent because, as his expert witness opined, someone traveling the speed limit of 35 mph would have seen the truck and had ample time to stop. The fact that she did not even slow down, he asserts, suggests she was distracted.
He stated plaintiff would not be unduly prejudiced by reversing default judgment because the lawsuit had only been filed a few months earlier.
Lastly, he said he believed the insurance company was providing for his defense in the case and that they would notify him of the need to appear or respond. Insurance agents backed him on this point, with one agent noting he believed the other was handling the claim. A misunderstanding within the company led to the oversight.
Thus, the court reversed the default judgment and remanded the case back for trial.
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Hilyer v. Fortier, Feb. 20, 2015, Alabama Supreme Court
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