What Happens When a Defendant in a Personal Injury Case Fails to Appear in Court?

Personal injury litigation is often a lengthy process, involving months or even years of pretrial discovery, followed by a trial and possibly several rounds of appeals. What happens when the defendant simply fails to respond to the plaintiff’s lawsuit? Does the plaintiff automatically win?

Anderson v. Family Dollar Stores of Georgia, LLC

In legal terms, a defendant who fails to answer a properly served complaint “defaults.” This does not necessarily mean that the plaintiff is entitled to damages. The default only means the judge must take the factual allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint as true. The judge must then determine if those allegations are properly pled–i.e., that they actually state a legal basis for granting relief.

If the judge decides such a basis exists, then yes, the court can enter a default judgment and award damages. Default judgments of this type are most commonly associated with creditor lawsuits. For example, a credit card company sues a delinquent account holder who, typically because he or she cannot afford a defense, simply fails to appear in court, leading the judge to issue default judgment to the creditor.

While perhaps less common, default judgments can and do happen in personal injury cases, even against defendants that are large, well-known companies. In fact, a federal judge in Valdosta recently issued a $1.4 million default judgment in a slip-and-fall case.

According to the plaintiff’s complaint, he visited a store owned by the defendant in 2014. While walking across the parking lot to the store’s entrance, the plaintiff “fell into a large hole where the pavement had collapsed.” The plaintiff alleged the defendant had known about the hole for a “significant period of time” and deliberately chose not to make repairs.

For whatever reason, the defendant never entered an appearance or in any way replied to the plaintiff’s lawsuit. The court noted the defendant’s default. The plaintiff then moved for default judgment and an award of damages.

The judge determined that, taking the allegations in the complaint as true, the plaintiff had demonstrated he suffered serious injuries as a result of the fall, and that the defendant’s negligence was the cause. Taking into account the plaintiff’s age, his inability to work after the accident, and his permanent injuries, the judge awarded compensatory damages of $1.2 million.

The plaintiff also asked for punitive damages. Under Georgia law, such damages are available when the plaintiff can prove the defendant’s actions showed “want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” As noted above, the plaintiff alleged the defendant knew about the hole in the pavement for some time yet did not fix it. Taking this statement as true–which the court must in a default judgment situation–the judge found this “showed want of care.” Accordingly, the court awarded the plaintiff an additional $200,000 in punitive damages.

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