If you have been served with papers for a lawsuit, the temptation to hide your head and pretend it isn’t happening can be very strong and alluring. However, you should never give in to this temptation because if you do, you could end up losing the lawsuit without ever having the chance to make your voice heard. The person suing you could end up getting a default judgment.
What is a default judgment?
In civil law, there is an idea that a case should be resolved with as little use of judicial resources as possible. This is because, without policies to move cases along, the courts can often become bogged down with cases that are not progressing towards resolution.
To this end, the courts have developed the idea of default judgment: if you are sued and you do not file a response within a set period of time, you can automatically lose the case—even if you would have won on the merits of your case if it had gone to trial. The idea is that since you did not bother to respond in a timely fashion, you lose.
How long do I have to respond?
Each state has its own laws regarding a default, so you should be sure to check your state’s laws. Many states will allow you to get an extension on the amount of time you have to answer, but only if you contact the court on or before the date your response is due and ask for more time. Also, not every state will automatically give you more time, so you should not count on getting an extension as a matter of course.
Is a default judgment different than a judgment on the merits?
A default judgment is, for all practical purposes, the same as losing the case after taking it to trial. In both situations a judgment has been rendered and the person who won the case can take action to begin collecting the judgment.
There may be a difference in some situations: a default judgment does not mean that the issues have been litigated, so the parties cannot—in a subsequent case—rely on the doctrine of res judicata to force the court to follow the decision rendered in the default case (mainly because there was no decision: a default judgment is not, in most cases, a decision on the merits of the case).
If you get sued, make sure you respond in time, or you may end up losing before you ever see the inside of a courtroom.