Default Judgments in Civil Lawsuits

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A default judgment is conclusive and binding on the parties. If a default judgment is entered against a defendant (the person being sued in a lawsuit), the defendant can't later try to deny or fight the claims made in the lawsuit. 

Grounds for Default Judgment

Failure to File Answer: A defendant  is required to respond to a complaint that has been filed by the plaintiff (the person suing) within the time period set by law, usually 20 to 30 days. If the defendant fails to file a timely answer, the plaintiff can ask the court to enter a default judgment. If the plaintiff presents evidence supporting the claims contained in the complaint, the court can render a default judgment against the defendant. The trial court has discretion to grant or deny a default judgment. The amount of the judgment can not be greater than the dollar amount claimed by the plaintiff in the complaint. The trial court will hold a hearing, if necessary, to determine the amount of damages if a specific dollar amount is not stated in the complaint.

Failure to Plead or Defend Lawsuit: A default judgment can also be entered if the defendant appears in a case and later fails to plead or otherwise defend against the plaintiff's claims. However, the defendant is entitled to written notice of the plaintiff's request for the entry of a default judgment at least three days before a hearing on the request. The courts have broadly defined what it means to make an appearance; an appearance is not limited to a formal court appearance.

Default Judgments are Not Available in Some Lawsuits

The trial court lacks the power to enter a default judgment in certain types of lawsuits, such as a suit to quiet title to land. A default judgment can't be obtained against a person in military service.

Relief from Default Judgment

The trial court can set aside a default judgment if the defendant can show a good reason for his or her failure to answer the complaint or otherwise defend the lawsuit. The courts recognize the following as grounds to set aside a default judgment:

  • Mistake or excusable neglect
  • Newly discovered evidence that could not have been discovered before by due diligence
  • Fraud

Seeking relief from a default judgment varies between the states. In Ohio, a person has up to one year after a judgment is entered to file a motion to set aside a default judgment while in Arizona, the time period is six months. The defendant must show that (1) the failure to answer within the time required by law was due to one of the reasons mentioned above; (2) that relief was promptly sought after finding out about the default judgment; and (3) that the defendant had a good defense to the lawsuit.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How can I stop a default judgment from being entered against me?
  • How do I collect the money owed on a default judgment?
  • Is there a time limit on how long I have to enforce the default judgment?
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