Florida Appellate Court Deems Default Judgment Improper in Auto Accident Case

In the recent case of Kotlyar v. Metro Casualty Insurance Co., the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal considered whether a lower court’s entry of default judgment against the person who owned the car involved in a motor vehicle accident lawsuit was proper, even though the issue of whether or not the car owner was liable for the plaintiff’s injuries had not been assessed. According to the court, the trial court erred in granting the default judgment before deciding this critical issue of liability.

The background of the case was as follows. The insurance company filed a complaint against the defendant and his wife as a subrogee of its insured, the plaintiff. According to the pleadings, the insurer alleged that on the date the accident occurred, Kotlyar and his wife were the owners of the vehicle in question, and the plaintiff’s wife was negligent in operating the vehicle on the date of the accident.

The wife responded to the complaint with a pro se answer, alleging that she was not liable for the damages. The husband did not respond to the complaint, and eventually a default judgment was entered against him. If a party does not respond to a complaint within the statutorily required time frame, the court can enter a default judgment against that party and in the plaintiff’s favor. In the event a default judgment is entered against a party, all of the facts pleaded in the complaint are deemed to be true.

The husband filed a motion to vacate the default judgment, stating that the action was not proper based on its request for unliquidated damages. He also alleged that when an action seeks unliquidated damages, the defendant must be given notice and a chance to respond to the allegations. The trial court rejected his argument and denied the motion. Kotlyar appealed.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the default judgment, stating that allowing the default judgment against Kotlyar without first conducting a determination regarding whether his wife was liable for the plaintiff’s alleged injuries would potentially lead to an unjust result. It could create a situation in which the insurer was allowed to obtain damages from Kotlyar simply because he owned the vehicle that his wife was operating negligently. Additionally, the complaint asserted liability against Kotlyar solely on the theory that he was negligent as a result of his wife’s negligent operation of the vehicle that they owned together.

If you have been involved in a car accident, you may be entitled to compensation. Under Florida law, there are a wide variety of claims that you can assert against a negligent driver and the owner of the vehicle involved in the accident. Knowing which claims may apply and the legal remedies that are available to you is a critical step in bringing your claim and seeking the justice that you deserve. At Lusk, Drasites & Tolisano, we have assisted many Southwest Florida residents with seeking the settlement or the judgment that they deserve, and we are ready to do the same for you. Call us now at 1-800-283-7442 or contact us online to set up your free consultation.

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