Having a judgment by default entered against you is an unnecessary, harsh reality that should and can be avoided. It is the equivalent of losing in court. The effect of a default judgment is the defendant being found guilty because it never entered a defense. However, under some circumstances, a default judgment may be challenged, and a defendant may find relief from a default judgment. A petition to open a default judgment is based on a court’s equitable powers and the trial court has the discretion to grant or deny the petition. The standard of review requires that the party seeking to open the default judgment establish three elements.
A plaintiff may petition the court for a judgment by default when the defendant fails to file an answer to the plaintiff’s complaint. The defendant’s failure to appear at a hearing or inform the court that it will be defending a claim may give rise to a default judgment. Thus, a plaintiff who files a complaint, obtains a hearing, and is the sole party to appear at this hearing will win by default. A plaintiff who fails to appear for a hearing will have its case subject to dismissal.
The three elements that must be present for a default judgment to be opened are
A petitioner must file a petition for relief from the judgment within ten days after entry of the judgment on the docket. It must contain a reasonable explanation or legitimate excuse for the inactivity or delay. Pennsylvania procedural rules require that a verified copy of the complaint, preliminary objections, or answer sought to be filed are attached to the petition for relief from the judgment. This enables the court to determine from the documents filed whether the complaint alleges a meritorious cause of action, one or more of the preliminary objections has merit, or the answer alleges a meritorious defense.
The court’s refusal to open a default judgment will not be reversed on appeal unless the trial court abused its discretion or committed an error of law. An abuse of discretion is not merely an error in judgment; rather it occurs when the law is overridden or misapplied, or when the judgment exercised is manifestly unreasonable or the result of partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill-will.
Additionally, a court must determine whether there are equitable considerations that weigh in favor of opening the default judgment and allowing the defendant to defend the case on the merits. If the equities warrant opening a default judgment, a court may find an abuse of discretion.
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