A No-Show in Court Does Not Mean Default Judgment Success

When Robert Williams, Jr. and Tyson Smith got into an altercation that resulted in a broken jaw for Williams, the Williams family brought a lawsuit against both Tyson Smith and the Northeast Louisiana Marine Institute, Inc. (NLMI). NLMI is an alternative school in Tallulah, LA. The event occurred one January morning in 2007 at NLMI with both teachers and other students present.

Even though both defendants were served with notice of the suit neither responded in a timely fashion. When a defendant does not respond to a claim against him or her, the court has the ability to enter a judgment despite a party’s failure to show up and present a defense. If a party has made any appearance in the process, however, then the party’s representative must be given notice of the default judgment before the judgment is confirmed.

The trial court in this case entered default judgment against the defendants. The court found NLMI liable for the incident and awarded just over $60,000 to the plaintiffs. NLMI appealed this decision, and, even though they did not present a defense at trial, were able to get the ruling overturned.

A plaintiff cannot win a claim merely because the defendant declined to show up to the proceedings. When a person has a grievance and brings it to a court, that party must provide evidence to support a prima facie case. According to Thibodeaux v. Burton, a 1989 Louisiana case, this means that the plaintiff must present evidence that convinces the court that the claim is likely to prevail in a trial on the merits. If, for instance, the plaintiff is bringing a negligence claim (as the Williams are against NLMI in this case) then the plaintiff must show evidence of any and all elements of that charge. If the plaintiff can show that the claim would likely win even if the defendant had showed up, then the plaintiff is entitled to a default judgment in his or her favor. This standard is established in Louisiana’s Code of Civil Procedure.

An appeal from a default judgment normally requires overcoming the presumption that the judgment was rendered upon sufficient evidence and that it is legally correct. However, the appellate court in this case noted that this presumption does not apply where the testimony is transcribed and contained in the record. Therefore, in this case the appellate court was able to look at the evidence to decide whether it was sufficient and competent (a greater level of inquiry than the appellate court would otherwise engage in). The court found that while schools need to provide adequate supervision of students, they do not act as insurers of safety. The appellate court reversed the judgment, finding that the evidence presented was not sufficient for a prima facie case necessary in order to obtain confirmation of default.

While an absent defendant might seem to be a slam dunk case for a plaintiff with a non-frivolous claim, potential plaintiffs should seek the advice of a competent lawyer to be sure that their side of the case has sufficient evidence to win a default judgment should the defendants decline to show up.