Split COA relieves defendant from default despite inexcusable neglect

The defendant in a workplace injury lawsuit was properly relieved from a default judgment against it despite the defense’s inexcusable neglect, a panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled. A dissenting judge, however, warned the majority’s decision could result in litigants performing “end runs” around excusable neglect rules.

The case at issue involves Clint Fields, a carpenter for Crown Corr, Inc., who was seriously injured after he fell nearly 40 feet from a scaffold while working in February 2017 on the Crossroads construction project at the University of Notre Dame. Fields sued Safway Group Holdings, LLC, which rented and assembled the scaffold, asserting negligence and product liability claims.

After no counsel appeared for Safway about a month after the claim was filed, Fields moved for default judgment on the issue of negligence, which was granted the next day in St. Joseph Superior Court.  About a month later, Safway filed a motion to set aside the judgment, which was eventually granted.

Fields appealed the vacation of the default judgment in his favor, but the majority of the COA affirmed the trial court in Clint Fields v. Safway Group Holdings, LLC, 18A-CT-247.

“Indiana Trial Rule 60(B)(8) allows a trial court to grant relief from judgment for ‘any reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment, other than those reasons set forth in sub-paragraphs (1), (2), (3), and (4),’” Judge Melissa May wrote for the majority joined by Judge Patricia Riley. “The motion for relief must be filed within a reasonable time and the movant must present a meritorious defense.”

“… We cannot disagree with the trial court’s reasonable inference that, while the actions of Safway employees are not excusable, the situation created here was exceptional and thus, ‘plausible and understandable,’” May wrote, citing Huntington National Bank v. Car-X Association Corporation, 39 N.E.3d 652 (Ind. 2015).

Coupled with the Indiana Supreme Court’s preference of deciding cases on the merits and the potential prejudice to Safway, the majority affirmed the trial court’s vacating it order of partial default judgment for Fields.

But dissenting Judge Paul Mathias wrote that the finding that Safway’s neglect was inexcusable should have rendered relief unavailable.

“I agree with the trial court that Safway did not establish mistake, surprise, or excusable neglect sufficient to justify relief, under Trial Rule 60(B)(1), from the default judgment entered in favor of Fields. I part ways with the trial court, and the majority, however, to the extent that they conclude that Safway was entitled to relief under Rule 60(B)(8),” Mathias wrote.

“Indeed, if a party’s neglect does not constitute excusable neglect under Rule 60(B)(1), it would make no sense to nevertheless afford that party relief under Rule 60(B)(8),” Mathias continued. “Otherwise, a party could do an end run around Rule 60(B)(1), opening up the possibility of a parade of cases bypassing the intent of the rule to permit relief only for excusable neglect.

“Under circumstances where the moving party was negligent, Rule 60(B)(1) should be the exclusive remedy,” he concluded. “If that party’s negligence was inexcusable, they should not be afforded relief under Rule 60(B)(8). Because the majority concludes otherwise, I respectfully dissent.”

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