Rules of civil procedure are the boring, but essential, part of our primary method for civil conflict resolution under a system of law. Like any other competitive undertaking that is governed by rules and referees, each participant must play his or her part according to the accepted standards to efficiently move the contest to a final conclusion.
The main playing field in civil litigation is at the trial court level. That phase of a civil litigation contest is completed with a judgment or final court order. Default judgments happen when one of the parties to a lawsuit fails or refuses to play by the rules. These judgments by default are most frequently imposed when a party simply fails to show up for the contest and forfeits the game, but they can also result when a party willfully defies the rules of discovery and related orders of court.
The logic of a default judgment resulting form a defendant’s failure to answer a complaint is fairly straightforward. By Kentucky Rules of Civil Procedure CR 8.04, allegations in a complaint are deemed admitted if they are not expressly and timely denied. When a complaint states a cause of action upon which relief can be granted but the liability is admitted by a defendant, there is no dispute and there is no good reason not to enter judgment for the Plaintiff.
CR 55.01 provides, in part, as follows:
“When a party against whom a judgment for affirmative relief is sought has failed to plead or otherwise defend as provided by these rules, the party entitled to a judgment by default shall apply to the court therefor. . . .”It is commonly thought that a judgment by default does not go to the merits of a claim, and that it is a purely procedural undertaking. It could just as easily be thought that a judgment by default arises because the claim is meritorious and not subject to any good faith defense. This thinking holds when a defendant’s non-defense amounts to an intentional waiver. If there is an intentional waiver involved in a choice to not defend against a civil action, there is no conflict in need of a resolution. The debt collection tools provided by law that accompany a judgment are a separate justification for using litigation, wholly apart from deciding the merits of the underlying claim.
This idea collapses when a failure to defend results from a defendant’s mistake or neglect. This latter category of judgment by default makes it into the appellate case reports when the defaulting party appeals directly from the judgment or seeks to have the trial court vacate the judgment.
A less common authorization for judgment by default is contained in CR 37.02(2)(c). Default judgment is but one of the many alternate sanctions provided in Rule 37.02, and it is one of the more severe options.. The possibility of this extreme sanction arises when a party fails to provide discovery upon request as Kentucky’s Rules of Civil Procedure specify; or if the court has issued an order compelling discovery under CR 37.01 or an order of examination under CR 53.01 and a party does not comply with the court’s order. Unlike judgment by default for failure to defend pursuant to CR 55.01, which applies to defendants only, the sanctions allowed in CR 37.02(2)(c) include dismissal of all or part of a claim for non-complying plaintiffs.