A default judgment refers to an adverse decision issued by a court, against a defendant who has either failed to appear for a court hearing, or who has failed to reply to a court document that required a response. In the United States civil court system, most defaults occur when a defendant named in a lawsuit fails to answer the complaint filed against him. A default judgment has the same force and legal effect as a judgment issued by a jury, after a trial on the merits.
A civil action is officially commenced when a plaintiff files a complaint in court. The civil rules of procedure require a plaintiff to give a copy of the complaint to a sheriff, who officially serves the document, along with a summons, to the defendant. The summons indicates that the defendant has a certain period of time within which to respond to the complaint, which, in most jurisdictions, is 21 days from the date of service. If a defendant fails to reply to the complaint within the prescribed time period, a plaintiff may apply to the court for a default judgment.
In order to obtain a default, a plaintiff must file with the court a copy of the sheriff’s return of service receipt as evidence that the defendant was properly served, but neglected to respond in a timely manner. A plaintiff must then schedule a hearing before a judge to seek approval for his request. A judge will grant a default judgment if the defendant does not appear at the hearing, and it is evident that the defendant was properly served with the complaint yet failed to respond. Once a default judgment has been approved, the court enters the judgment on its docket and notifies the defendant.
Most default judgments occur in cases where the defendant has no legitimate defense to the complaint, such as an action for repayment of a loan or a defaulted credit card balance. In these cases, a plaintiff can obtain a judgment without the necessity for a trial. A plaintiff who is awarded a default becomes a judgment creditor, and can seek to attach the assets of a judgment debtor by collection procedures authorized by law.
A defendant, against whom a default has been issued, can seek to have it removed by filing, in court, a request to vacate the default judgment. In order to prevail, a defendant would have to demonstrate to the court that he was unaware of the action against him, and that he has a legitimate defense to the action. Since the award of a default judgment effectively precludes a party from defending against a civil action filed against him, many courts will remove the default for good cause shown.