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Majority affirms default judgment against Sears

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The Indiana Court of Appeals split today as to whether a department store was entitled to have a default judgment set aside.

Judge James Kirsch believed Sears Roebuck and Co. did all it was required to do with Razor, the maker of an electric scooter, under the Universal Terms and Conditions contract the two companies had when it learned it was being sued. But the majority believed Sears’ third-party administrator was inattentive in monitoring the claim, which led to the default judgment being entered against Sears.

Vicky James sued Sears and Razor after her son fell and injured himself on a scooter she bought at Sears, alleging Razor defectively manufactured and designed the scooter and that Sears negligently sold and distributed it.

Sears forwarded the complaint to its third-party administrator and Nancy Hall was assigned to the case. She contacted James’ counsel, Richard Morgan, and general counsel for Razor, John Cochrane. Cochrane acknowledged Razor’s obligation under the UTC contract to defend Sears and that he had appointed John Obenchain as attorney.

The contract didn’t require Sears to send Cochrane written notice, but Cochrane waited to receive written notice from Hall confirming Razor’s duty to defend. She never sent it and Obenchain never appeared for Sears.

Seven months later, Hall tried following up, but sent e-mails to the wrong address. After reaching Obenchain, she learned of the default judgment entered against Sears and the $107,000 in damages award, and that he never appeared on the company’s behalf.

In Sears Roebuck and Co. v. Vicky James, et al., No. 71A03-1002-CT-104, Sears argued that the trial court erred in not setting aside the default judgment based on excusable neglect. The majority didn’t find any evidence of excusable neglect, but that Hall’s conduct in handling the litigation was “simple inattention.” She waited seven months to try to follow up with Cochrane; she could have contacted Obenchain directly. She also should have brought the case to the attention of her supervisor, which she did not.

The majority also concluded that James’ counsel’s conduct didn’t amount to misconduct that justified setting aside the judgment. They rejected Sears’ argument that James’ attorney should have contacted Hall prior to seeking default judgment. Hall is a claims adjuster, not an attorney, and under the Rules of Professional Conduct, James’ attorney wasn’t required to notify Hall of his intent to pursue default judgment, wrote Judge Patricia Riley.

But Judge Kirsch believed Sears acted with due diligence and did everything it was supposed to do when it learned it was being sued. Hall contacted James’ attorney and the general counsel for Razor. Cochrane told Hall that Razor was contractually obligated to defend Sears and that an attorney had been appointed.

“The subsequent default was the result of a breakdown of communications which we have held to constitute excusable neglect,” he wrote.

He also noted that setting aside default regarding Sears wouldn’t prejudice Razor in any way, and the only harm to the plaintiffs would be they couldn’t collect a judgment to which they may not be entitled on the merits of their claim. Judge Kirsch would vacate the default judgment and allow the case to go forward for a determination on its merits.
 

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  1. Hail to our Constitutional Law Expert in the Executive Office! “What you’re not paying attention to is the fact that I just took an action to change the law,” Obama said.

  2. What is this, the Ind Supreme Court thinking that there is a separation of powers and limited enumerated powers as delegated by a dusty old document? Such eighteen century thinking, so rare and unwanted by the elites in this modern age. Dictate to us, dictate over us, the massess are chanting! George Soros agrees. Time to change with times Ind Supreme Court, says all President Snows. Rule by executive decree is the new black.

  3. I made the same argument before a commission of the Indiana Supreme Court and then to the fedeal district and federal appellate courts. Fell flat. So very glad to read that some judges still beleive that evidentiary foundations matter.

  4. KUDOS to the Indiana Supreme Court for realizing that some bureacracies need to go to the stake. Recall what RWR said: "No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth!" NOW ... what next to this rare and inspiring chopping block? Well, the Commission on Gender and Race (but not religion!?!) is way overdue. And some other Board's could be cut with a positive for State and the reputation of the Indiana judiciary.

  5. During a visit where an informant with police wears audio and video, does the video necessary have to show hand to hand transaction of money and narcotics?

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