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Coulas v. Smith

    Brief Fact Summary. The Defendant, Coulas (Defendant), failed to appear in court claiming he had no notice that the trial date had been changed. The Defendant, Smith (Defendant), appealed the judgments entered against him at the trial.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Once an answer on the merits is filed and the case is at issue, a default judgment cannot be issued. If the defendant fails to appear at the trial, a judgment on the merits may be entered against him upon proper proof.

    Facts. The Plaintiff brought a suit against the Defendant and another Defendant (Cross- Claimant) for an open account and promissory note. The Cross-Claimant answered the Plaintiff’s complaint denying any liability and filed a cross claim against Defendant for any amounts the Plaintiff may have been awarded against him. The Defendant answered the Plaintiff and Cross-Claimant and countersued the Plaintiff. Plaintiff answered the Defendant’s counterclaim. The court clerk notified all parties of the trial date. Before trial, however, the Plaintiff and Cross-Claimant agreed to postpone the trial by two months and the court clerk notified all parties of the new date. Though the Defendant’s attorney did not ask for the postponement and was not present at the courthouse, the court clerk maintained that the Defendant was notified as well. On the new trial date, Defendant was not present and a judgment was entered against him. The Plaintiff received judgment against the Defendant on both counts and against the Cross-Claimant on the promissory note. The Cross-Claimant in turn obtained judgment against the Defendant on the promissory note. Nearly two years later, the Defendant filed a motion to vacate the judgment and was denied by the trial court.

    Issue. Whether a defendant, who has not defaulted in pleading, but fails to be present at trial, may have a judgment entered against him.

    Held. Yes. A Defendant who has not failed to plead, yet fails to show up at trial, may not have a default judgment entered against him. Rather, a judgment that is based on the merits of the case as presented by the plaintiff, who is present at trial may be entered. Judgment affirmed.

    Discussion. The court differentiates between a default judgment and a judgment that is entered in the defendant’s absence. In the former, the defendant does not partake in the pleadings process; in the latter, the defendant has pleaded. A default judgment may not be entered upon a party who has not evaded the pleadings process. A Defendant’s absence at trial does not warrant a judgment against him by default; a trial or hearing on the issues is necessary and the judgment that follows is based on the plaintiff’s ability to prove the ca


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