Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Default Judgment Definition:

An order of the Court striking a claim because no appearance, answer, reply or defence has been filed within the applicable deadlines.

Also known as judgment by default.

In Cole v. Metropolitan Council, Justice Forsberg of the Court of Appeals of Minnesota wrote:

"A default judgment is ... a judgment entered against a defendant who has failed to plead or otherwise defend against the plaintiff's claim, often by failing to appear at trial. A judgment by default is just as conclusive an adjudication between parties as any other. "

A default judgment is entered without any judicial assessment or trial on the merits of the action.1

Note this important distinction as articulated by Justice Burke of the Supreme Court of Alaska in Hertz v. Berzanske:

"The default entry is simply an interlocutory order that in itself determines no rights or remedies, whereas the default judgment is a final judgment that terminates the litigation and decides the dispute. Setting aside a final judgment may be more disruptive to the judicial process and to the parties, who may have relied thereon, than setting aside an interlocutory order. In addition, a default judgment typically involves a much greater commitment of judicial resources, because recovery determinations, complicated hearings and jury trials often take place."

In conclusion, consider these wise words of Justice Davis in the 1965 Illinois Appellate Court decision, Mieszkowski v. Norville:

"The entry of a default judgment against a party litigant is a harsh and drastic action. Frequently, the default is visited upon the litigant, as a vicarious punishment, for the acts or omissions of his counsel. While we recognize that rules of court must be observed if dockets are to be kept current, yet courts must, in a proper case, yield the procedural exactitudes to the more basic rules of fundamental fairness.

"The setting aside of such judgment should be tested by the principle of fundamental fairness, and should be an exercise of the court's discretion, wherein it seeks the prevention of injury and the furtherance of justice. In exercising this discretion, it is essential that the court ascertain if some reason exists for the failure to present a defense in apt time; that the court decide whether some meritorious defense exists so that vacating the judgment will not be a patently useless act; and that the court determine if some particular hardship will result to the plaintiff. These determinations should be made, however, within the framework of the legal philosophy that litigation should be determined on its merits, if possible, and according to the substantive rights of the parties. Rights should be determined by default only as a last resort."


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