Many issues surrounding litigation are complicated. But there is one straightforward, uncomplicated rule that applies to all lawsuits anywhere—if you are sued do not ignore the lawsuit!! No matter how ridiculous the lawsuit seems or how much you do not want to pay for an attorney, you must respond to avoid a default judgment. This rule may be obvious to many, but, it is ignored by untold numbers of individuals and small businesses every year. Following this rule is especially important in Virginia, where it is easy to get a default judgment and especially difficult to have such a judgment set aside.
If a person (or business) who is sued does not respond to the lawsuit, the plaintiff—the person doing the suing—will almost certainly get a default judgment and an award of damages, even if the plaintiff has a very weak case. And in many states neither the plaintiff nor the court is required to advise a defendant that a default judgment has been entered against him or her, so a defendant might not know about the judgment until a sheriff suddenly seizes the defendant’s assets to pay the judgment. Once a default judgment is entered it is very difficult to have it reversed. In a limited number of cases, if a defendant acts quickly and has a good reason for not responding to the lawsuit, it may be possible to have the default judgment thrown out and the case reopened. A good reason might, for example, be that the defendant never received notice of the lawsuit because the defendant moved from the address to which notice of the lawsuit was delivered. But a court is not likely to accept a defendant’s understandable reluctance to pay an attorney to respond to a seemingly baseless lawsuit as an excuse for not responding. If financial considerations make it absolutely impossible to hire an attorney, a defendant should answer the lawsuit him or herself, as best as possible, instead of ignoring it.
The important thing that many non-lawyers (and I suspect a good number of lawyers) do not understand is that, unless there are grounds for voiding the judgment, which will not usually be the case, a default judgment ends the lawsuit. The defendant owes the money specified in the judgment and, no matter how wrong or unjust the plaintiff’s original allegations were, the defendant will never be able to argue that he or she does not owe the money.
This issue is especially relevant in Virginia, where plaintiffs can sue for debts up to $25,000 in the general district courts using a simple form known as a warrant in debt. (Circuit courts hear cases involving larger sums of money.) A plaintiff using a warrant in debt needs to do little more than claim he is owed a certain amount of money and set a date for a court hearing. All too often the defendant does not show up at the hearing. A default judgment is entered and the defendant is, in the vast majority of cases, forever barred from defending him or herself, even if the defendant can easily show that he or she did not owe any money.
I write on this subject because I represent two individuals who lived over a thousand miles from Virginia, but were sued in Virginia’s general district court for several thousand dollars. It is clear to me that they did not actually owe this money, but they did not respond to the lawsuit and are now stuck with a significant default judgment against them. And, as I have written earlier in this blog, Virginia courts are especially reluctant to overturn default judgments, even when there is a seemingly good reason to do so.
One of the few ways a defendant can escape a default judgment is by arguing that the court that issued the judgment did not have jurisdiction to issue it. Fortunately, I can make a compelling argument that that the general district court lacked jurisdiction to issue the judgment against my clients because my clients have never had any significant connection to Virginia. But my clients would have saved much money and mental anguish if they had responded to the original lawsuit.