Willful Conduct Required to Enter Default Judgment Against Noncomplying Party
C.L. Smith Auto Sales, LLC, and Leisa Smith v. David Bulger, Inc.
Bulger filed a complaint against C.L. Smith Auto Sales, LLC, and Leisa Smith (“the defendants”) on September 6, 2013. On February 17, 2016, the trial court entered a scheduling order setting the cause for trial on October 24, 2016, and ordering the parties to mediate in good faith before the scheduled trial date. The February 17, 2016, scheduling order also set a pretrial conference for October 11, 2016. On April 15, 2016, the attorney for the defendants filed a motion to withdraw at the defendants’ request. The court granted the request and the parties subsequently unsuccessfully mediated the cause with the defendants appearing pro se. On October 15, 2016, the trial court entered an order of default against the defendants based on the fact that at the October 11, 2016, pretrial conference, Plaintiff was present with counsel but defendants were not present and no attorney appeared on their behalf.
The defendants’ former attorney reentered the case on November 18, 2016, and on that same day filed a motion to set aside the October 15, 2016, order on the ground that the default was improperly entered as a sanction against the defendants for what they claimed was the “unintentional failure to attend” the pretrial conference. The trial court denied the defendants’ motion, and this appeal ensued.
Plaintiff argued that because defendants’ motion was not filed within 30 days of the date the trial court entered the October 15, 2016, order, it was untimely. However, this Court found no authority to support this contention. The Court found the defendants’ motion was filed months before the trial court entered its final judgment assessing damages, and therefore, the order remained interlocutory.
This Court stated in order to enter default judgment against a party, there must be clear evidence that defendants’ failure to attend the pretrial conference was a “conscious or intentional failure to act.” The Court found no such evidence, and therefore ruled the trial court abused its discretion in entering the default judgment against the defendants.