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$500,000 fine for Seattle dog’s loud barking? Blame defendant inattentiveness.

Imagine waking up one morning, $500,000 in debt, all because your dog was a little bit of a loud mouth. Unfortunately for Seattle resident Denise Norton, her dog Cawper’s “explosive barking,” as well as her own inattentiveness to legal proceedings being brought against her in 2012, has put her a half-million in debt.

As originally reported in early February by KOMO News, Norton and her family are currently fighting a $500,000 default judgment secured by their neighbor – Woodrow Thompson – against them in March 2012. According to the story, Norton admitted being served with papers about the lawsuit, but thought it was bogus and chose not to respond. As a result, the court gave Thompson a default judgment against Norton and her family for the amount requested in the complaint. In order to satisfy the judgment, the creditor – Thompson – sought to repossess the Norton’s home. Norton told KOMO, and records corroborate, that the King County Sheriff placed papers on the door of the home, stating the intention to sell it to satisfy the Nortons’ owed debt. Now, predictably, the family is fighting the judgment.

Norton has recognized her own inaction contributed to her unfortunate situation; had she taken the summons and complaint seriously, there is little chance a judgment – particularly one of such monetary consequence – would have been ordered by the court. But the case highlights the enormous importance of taking legal threats seriously, even if you think the lawsuit frivolous or motivated by animus, rather than fact. 

If, as the defendant to a lawsuit, you fail to appear, plead or defend, you invite potential liability. Under the rules of state courts, the defaulting party will be deemed to have admitted all the allegations of the plaintiff’s complaint – no matter how zany – leaving only the determination of damages and the entering of a judgment. Similarly, unless the judgment is later set aside, the defendants are stuck to what was alleged in the complaint and cannot file an answer or further contest liability.

So, in cases with arguable facts, which is basically almost every case, arguing your side of the story could make all the difference. For instance, in this case, a simple, early statement of defense could have prevented the multiple sheriff trips to Norton home, much like it could have avoided the ongoing litigation that is surely racking up considerable attorney’s fees. Instead of presenting the case as a loving family dog versus a crotchety neighbor, the Nortons first allowed the case to be portrayed as the tortured plaintiff versus the faceless, “raucous” beast.

Thankfully, our court system has fashioned an escape hatch for neglectful defendants like the Nortons. Under state rules, courts are permitted to set aside default judgments and their accompanying orders, “for good cause shown and upon such terms as the court deems just.” This standard is “deliberately vague … to allow the court considerable discretion to fashion fair and reasonable results on a case-by-case basis.” Excusable neglect, surprise, inadvertence, mistake, or irregularity are all bases upon which a court may group a “good cause” decision. Similarly, courts are more likely to set aside a default judgment if the underlying facts of the case tend to support the defendant seeking to vacate the decision.

Further, Washington courts have historically limited motions to vacate default judgments to those that commence no more than one year after the judgment was ordered. That rule is not clear cut.  So, the ultimate question is whether the delay in filing to vacate a default judgment was reasonable – a decision a judge has considerable discretion to make. 

Thus, all hope is not lost for those who have a default judgment attached to their record, but it’s not an easy trek. Between determining the reasonableness of delays or combating factual presumptions, the best way to avoid a burdensome judgment similar to the Nortons’ is to take legal threats seriously from the start.

 

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