Lawyers are educated and trained on complicated matters of legal substance and process, yet we sometimes (or often) find ourselves in the position of counseling clients about things that seem like matters of common sense. So, let’s imagine another courtroom scene, aided by another script-like description.
Judge Gavelslammer (man in judicial garb): Next we have the small claims matter of Company X v. Citizen Whoever, docket number blah blah blah. Are the parties present?
Attorney A (woman in business suit): For the plaintiff, your honor.
Judge: Is Mr. Whoever present?
Judge: Mr. Citizen was notified of this hearing on such-and-such date and did not appear when his matter was called. Judgment will be entered for Company X by default. Counsel, it appears that you are asking for $5000 in actual damages. Is that correct?
Attorney A: Yes, and we would also request post-judgment interest.
Judge: I’ll award both. Next we have…
Easy work for the plaintiff’s attorney, although collection on the judgment may prove difficult. Mr. Whoever probably has limited means at the moment and figured it wasn’t worth his time to go to court because Company X couldn’t squeeze any money from him. (Or maybe he thought, erroneously, that he could avoid losing if he didn’t appear—which is the complete opposite of reality.) There are a few problems with that approach, beyond the obvious fact that the defendant just lost his case. First, he missed the opportunity to mediate with the plaintiff and perhaps settle for a smaller amount. Second, he may one day find that he wants that judgment to stop hanging over his head—it could be showing up in background checks, for example, when he applies for jobs. Third, depending on the nature of the suit and the defendant’s circumstances, the plaintiff may find a way to enforce the judgment that Mr. Whoever didn’t know was available, such as using the judgment debt like a lien against something he owns, garnishing his wages, or having him arrested for failure to pay child support. Finally, it’s possible that Company X didn’t have enough evidence to prove its case at trial or was asking for wildly inflated damages—because the defendant didn’t show up, the plaintiff didn’t have to do much to secure a judgment and the full award it had hoped for.
Again, for emphasis: even if you can’t afford a lawyer, the least you can do when someone sues you is appear in court and make him, her, or it carry the burden of proof. The case will not go away, and you are likely to lose in a matter of seconds. (The only excuse I’ve seen accepted by a court: the defendant couldn’t show up because she was in the hospital getting chemo treatment for cancer, and even then the case was only postponed.) Of course, if you can afford a lawyer, I happen to know a few of them.