What Happens if I Don’t Answer a Complaint?

When the defendant fails to answer the complaint or file a motion to dismiss within the time limit set forth in the summons, the defendant is in default. When a defendant is in default, the plaintiff can ask the court clerk to make a note of that fact in the file, a procedure called entry of default. Entry of default is serious: it means that because the defendant has failed to appear, he or she will not be permitted to contest whether he or she is liable to the plaintiff. Instead, the only question in dispute is how much the plaintiff should receive in damages. The court will send the defendant a notice stating that default has been entered against him or her.

If you are in default and act promptly and have an adequate excuse, you may be able to convince the court to vacate (undo) the entry of default from the file. Courts very much prefer that cases be decided on the merits, which often influences them to grant a motion to vacate entry of default. But in some cases, a court will decide that the defendant's reasons aren't good enough and refuse to vacate the entry of default.

Once a default is entered, the plaintiff can ask the court for a judgment on damages. The plaintiff must prove how much he or she should receive as compensation. If the plaintiff's claim is based on a contract that specifically identifies the amount owing, the court can enter judgment for that amount. In such a case, the damages are described as being liquidated. That means that the amount is known.

When the amount of damages are not so easily determined, they are described as unliquidated. In this situation, the plaintiff will need to present bills relating to his or her injury and evidence of other expenses, lost profits, the value of lost opportunities, and the like. The defendant is entitled to participate in these proceedings to contest the amount of damages and what kinds of damages may be recovered. In a case involving a personal injury, the plaintiff will need to submit medical bills and expenses, a request for a certain amount to compensate for pain and suffering, or lost wages. If appropriate, the plaintiff also may ask for compensation for future expenses. In cases of serious injury, the plaintiff may want to present witness testimony to establish what the plaintiff's future needs will be and how much money will be required to meet those needs.

When the court has decided how much the plaintiff is entitled to receive, it will enter judgment for that amount. The plaintiff will become a judgment creditor and may begin collection proceedings. The plaintiff also may turn to the defendant's insurer, if the insurer has been identified, and make a demand for coverage.

Thus, motions are an important part of the litigation process. Often, they can end a case before it even begins or before it reaches trials. Contact an attorney for more information about the litigation process.

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