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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. It's a big fat black mark against the US that they radicalized a lot of these Afghan jihadis in the 80s to fight the soviets and then when they predictably got around to biting the hand that fed them, the US had to invade their homelands, install a bunch of corrupt drug kingpins and kleptocrats, take these guys and torture the hell out of them. Why for example did the US have to sodomize them? Dubya said "they hate us for our freedoms!" Here, try some of that freedom whether you like it or not!!! Now they got even more reasons to hate us-- lets just keep bombing the crap out of their populations, installing more puppet regimes, arming one faction against another, etc etc etc.... the US is becoming a monster. No wonder they hate us. Here's my modest recommendation. How about we follow "Just War" theory in the future. St Augustine had it right. How about we treat these obvious prisoners of war according to the Geneva convention instead of torturing them in sadistic and perverted ways.

  2. As usual, John is "spot-on." The subtle but poignant points he makes are numerous and warrant reflection by mediators and users. Oh but were it so simple.

  3. ACLU. Way to step up against the police state. I see a lot of things from the ACLU I don't like but this one is a gold star in its column.... instead of fighting it the authorities should apologize and back off.

  4. Duncan, It's called the RIGHT OF ASSOCIATION and in the old days people believed it did apply to contracts and employment. Then along came title vii.....that aside, I believe that I am free to work or not work for whomever I like regardless: I don't need a law to tell me I'm free. The day I really am compelled to ignore all the facts of social reality in my associations and I blithely go along with it, I'll be a slave of the state. That day is not today......... in the meantime this proposed bill would probably be violative of 18 usc sec 1981 that prohibits discrimination in contracts... a law violated regularly because who could ever really expect to enforce it along the millions of contracts made in the marketplace daily? Some of these so-called civil rights laws are unenforceable and unjust Utopian Social Engineering. Forcing people to love each other will never work.

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