Default Judgments – What They Are And What To Do About Them

Andrew M. McKenzie, Edmonds Lawyer

When you are served with a lawsuit, the law generally requires you to defend against the lawsuit.  Common psychological reactions to being served are panic and paralysis.  But just as a deer in the headlights can freeze up and seal its own fate of getting struck by a vehicle, defendants can be hit with a judgment if they fail to take action against claimed liability.  Whatever the reasons for a person’s failure to defend against a lawsuit, they are always better off without a default judgment being in place.

The process of obtaining a default judgment involves properly serving and filing the complaint, giving the defendant the required amount of time to respond, and then filing a formal motion with the court to enter the defendant’s default and a motion for the actual judgment by default.  The motion to enter the default and the motion for the default judgment are technically two different motions, though they can be combined in a single motion.  Entry of a defendant’s default simply means that the defendant is thereafter barred from defending against the lawsuit, whereas the default judgment is the court’s pronouncement of what the plaintiff is entitled to against the defendant (such as money damages, declaratory relief, an injunction, or otherwise).

The fact that a court has entered a default or default judgment against a defendant does not by itself bar any potential defense.  But what it does mean is that the defendant is required to vacate the default and/or default judgment before the court restores the defendant’s right to defend.  Washington’s Rules for Superior Court, Civil Rule 60 (CR 60) sets forth specific allowable grounds for a motion to vacate an entry of default or 0.0default judgment.  The most common ground for such a motion is “Mistakes, inadvertence, surprise, excusable neglect or irregularity in obtaining a judgment or order.”  These standards have generally been interpreted as requiring a defendant to show that the failure to defend was the result of an error which a reasonable person could have made, as opposed to a mere calculated choice to ignore the lawsuit.  The Washington Supreme Court has set forth four factors which lower courts are required to consider in deciding whether to grant a defendant’s motion to set aside the default or default judgment, namely:  (1) whether there is substantial evidence to support at least a prima facie defense to the plaintiff’s claims; (2) whether the moving party’s failure to timely appear in the action and answer the plaintiff’s claims was occasioned by mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect; (3) whether the moving party acted with due diligence after receiving notice of entry of the default judgment; and (4) whether vacating the default judgment would result in a substantial hardship to the plaintiff.  Of those four factors, courts consider the first two to be the most important, and when a defendant establishes them, the third and fourth factors can be seen as less relevant.

All of that is to say that if you have a default judgment entered against you, you should act quickly, demonstrate with evidence why you failed to respond or appear, demonstrate that you have reasonable grounds to defend, and ideally show how the plaintiff will not be unfairly prejudiced if you are given an opportunity to defend.  Having experienced counsel can make a big difference in your prospects for success in bringing or defending against the motion to vacate.

The lawyers at Beresford Booth have extensive experience in litigation, including dealing with defaults and default judgments.  We would be happy to assist you in your litigation needs.

To learn more about litigation and default judgments, please contact Beresford Booth at info@beresfordlaw.com or by phone at (425) 776-4100.

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