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Appeals Court in Massachusetts Considers Whether to Vacate $3.2 Million Default Judgment Against Allegedly Negligent Construction Company

Most Massachusetts personal injury lawsuits proceed in a back-and-forth fashion reminiscent of a tennis match. The plaintiff serves his or her complaint on the defendant, and then the defendant responds by filing an answer.

The parties then file discovery requests, to which the opposing party files an answer. Motions may be filed, with responses thereto filed by the other side. Eventually, if the case is not settled, a trial is held, with more back-and-forth exchanges between the plaintiff and the defendant.

Sometimes, however, a defendant may not conduct his or herself in the usual manner, potentially leading to a default judgment – a judgment declaring that the plaintiff is entitled to relief because the defendant has failed to file an answer denying the allegations in his or her complaint.

Facts of the Case

In a recent Massachusetts Appeals Court case, the plaintiff was a man who alleged that he was injured while working for a roofing company in 2014. More specifically, the plaintiff claimed that, while he was climbing a ladder at a construction site, a subcontractor’s vehicle struck the building that he was attempting to climb, knocking shingles from the building and causing him to fall.

The plaintiff filed a complaint against the defendant construction company in September, 2014, alleging that the defendant was negligent in the oversight and supervision of the project. In November, 2014, a return of service was filed. The return was signed by a deputy sheriff, who averred that he had hand-delivered a copy of the summons and complaint to a particular individual whom the deputy believed was the “person in charge.” The defendant did not respond to the plaintiff’s complaint. In 2016, a default judgment was entered against the defendant, and a writ of execution was entered in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of $3,450,901.

In 2017, the defendant filed a motion for relief from the default judgment, along with several affidavits averring, among other things, that the person who was served with the lawsuit was “never the person in charge” of the construction project where the plaintiff was hurt. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion, and the defendant appealed.

The Court’s Decision on Appeal

The appellate court vacated the lower tribunal’s decision, concluding that the motion should not have been denied on the affidavits and that further proceedings were necessary in order to determine whether the defendant was entitled to relief from the default judgment previously entered against it.

In so holding, the court noted that, Under Mass. R. Civ. P. 60(b)(b), a defendant may seek relief from a judgment when that judgment is void due to lack of proper service. The plaintiff has the burden of establishing the validity of service of process when a motion for relief from a void judgment is filed. Here, the plaintiff’s submission of the return of service of process was prima facie evidence that service was validly made.

However, the defendant against whom such evidence has been established can offer a rebuttal in the form of sufficiently detailed affidavits regarding deficiencies in the alleged service of process made upon him, her, or it. In this case, the affidavits offered by the defendant were such that further inquiry should have been made by the trial court. This not having been done, the appellate court found that the appropriate thing to do was to return the case to the lower court so that additional evidentiary development could take place regarding the propriety of the plaintiff’s service of process upon the defendant.

Talk to a Lawyer About a Personal Injury Claim

No one chooses to be hurt at work or while performing job duties on another’s premises. Nevertheless, these types of accidents happen frequently. If you have questions about a possible personal injury lawsuit against a negligent individual, business, or governmental entity, call the experienced Cape Cod injury attorneys at the Law Offices of John C. Manoog, III, at 888-262-6664 today.