A recent article reporting on a default judgment against a Eureka business owner and its employee shows why you should never ignore a lawsuit filed against you.
On August 18, the North Coast Journal published an article about a lawsuit filed last year after a fight broke out at Gabriel’s, an Italian restaurant in Old Town, Eureka. Apparently, a waiter attacked a customer who may have been drunk or on drugs and who was combative. The customer broke his ankle in the scuffle. While the Humboldt County District Attorney had considered pressing criminal charges against the customer, no charges were ever filed and the customer instead sued the waiter and one of the owners of Gabriel’s for damages. Last fall, he obtained a default judgment and now has filed a second suit adding several more defendants to the legal battle. Read the article here.
A number of friends asked me about the case. Their biggest questions had to do with the amount of damages awarded – a whopping $2.5 million -- against an owner of Gabriel’s and the alleged attacker. They were shocked at the large amount of damages when the plaintiff’s expenses only totaled about $36,000 and the defendants did not even put up a fight. I explained to them the concept of default judgments.
Default judgments can be obtained when the defendant does not file a response to the Summons and Complaint in a lawsuit, or does not appear at the hearing. Default judgments may be set aside or vacated by the court at the request of the defendant for reasons such as mistake, inadvertence, surprise, and excusable neglect. (See California Code of Civil Procedure sections 473(b), 476(d) and 473.5.) However, if a judgment is not set aside, it can be enforced by court actions such as the attachment of wages or assets.
From a plaintiff’s perspective, without commenting on this particular case, a lawsuit is a question of enforcing one’s rights. The reason the damages were so high in the restaurant case may in fact be BECAUSE the defendants did not fight back. The law is an adversarial, two party system. If defendants do not appear in court, the plaintiff does not have the opportunity to seek a remedy. Obviously, if defendants do not show up in court, they also do not have the opportunity to present a defense and it is not the judge’s job to do it for them.
Default judgments are not a plaintiff’s dream outcome by any means. There are a number of escape hatches for defendants to get them set aside. The number of escape hatches decreases with time, but there are some that are always available. Furthermore, since plaintiffs can be limited in their recovery by what they ask for in a default judgment, defaults cannot replace the right to a trial by jury.