Default judgments arise when a defendant or his attorney fails to file timely documents in court, in response to a plaintiff's allegations in a lawsuit. Default judgments can result in a significant judgment against an absent defendant. Once the court enters the judgment, the defendant must pay the amount owed, even though he did not have the opportunity to defend the case in court. Under certain circumstances, a defendant may make a motion to vacate, or overturn, a default judgment, which the court may grant, at its discretion.
Definition of Default Judgment
A default judgment is a court ruling in favor of a plaintiff in which the defendant has failed to file pleadings or has otherwise failed to enter an appearance in the case. First, the judge reviews the facts and the law as the plaintiff's complaint presents them. Then, she awards the plaintiff the relief he is seeking, provided the relief is proper under Georgia law. In a default judgment proceeding, the judge may not award the plaintiff any other type of relief or exceed the amount that the plaintiff's complaint requested. In general, defendants have 30 days to respond to a plaintiff's complaint, and they may request additional time, at the court's discretion.
Opening a Default Judgment
Under typical circumstances, a defendant must make a motion to vacate a default judgment and present facts to the judge. However, Georgia's civil procedure rules provide default defendants a 15-day window after the judgment was filed to file an answer or to otherwise defend against the allegations. This is known as opening the default judgment, and this procedure does not require the defendant to prove that there was a mistake or fault. Under Georgia law, it is a matter of right. In other words, if the defendant shows up to defend the case within 15 days after the default judgment was entered, the court is required to hear his case.
Grounds to Reverse Default Judgment
If the defendant has missed the 15-day window when the court can re-open the default judgment, three grounds exist to reverse or vacate the judgment. The first ground is based upon a lack of personal jurisdiction over the defendant. This means the defendant subject to the judgment is not a resident of Georgia and has no significant ties to Georgia. The second ground is based on fraud, accident, mistake or intentional acts of the opposing party that caused the defendant to fail to appear in the original action. The defendant must present specific facts to the court to argue this ground. The third option requires the defendant to show that plaintiff's original pleadings did not actually state a valid claim under Georgia law and the defendant should not be liable.
Time Limit to File Motion
A defendant does not have unlimited time to file a motion to vacate the default judgment. Once a defendant becomes aware of the judgment against him, he must file a motion to vacate it within a reasonable time. He must also arrange for the service of court documents upon all involved parties. The court can only vacate a judgment within three years from the original entry of judgment.