DEFAULT JUDGMENTS ARE NOT ALWAYS THE END OF A CASE
What is an Inquest?
An inquest is a hearing in which a court evaluates a party’s claims for damages when another party “defaults”. Defaults occur in some areas of law more than others. They can be very common in landlord-tenant and and consumer debt cases.
When someone fails to attend a court date, and cannot give the Court a good reason for the absence, the Court may enter a “default” judgment against that person. The default judgement will mean that, as far as the court is concerned, the person is liable of whatever the other party has alleged.
However, whether a person has caused harm to another, and how much harm a person has caused, are two different issues. For example, assume a plaintiff sues a defendant for damaging a car. The defendant may admit to damaging the car, but may dispute the dollar value the plaintiff assigns to the damage. Perhaps the defendant claims that the car was already damaged in a previous accident. The defendant may argue that the plaintiff is attempting to collect money to cover damages resulting from the previous accident – damages that the defendant didn’t cause. Although the defendant caused some damage to the plaintiff’s car, it would be unfair to hold the defendant liable for more damages than the defendant actually caused. The inquest addresses this issue.
Once a default judgement is entered against a defendant, it is as if the defendant has admitted to causing the harm. But the court will still want to make sure that the defendant is not paying more in damages than the defendant caused. At an inquest, the court will require the plaintiff to provide testimony, affidavits, or other evidence, that will prove how much harm the defendant actually caused. Additionally, the defendant may cross-examine witnesses at the inquest, and may even offer evidence – as long as that evidence is confined to the issue of damages, not liability.
In a landlord-tenant case, it is certainly possible for a landlord to ask for more money than the tenant actually owes in arrears. In this context, a court will want to see some proof that the tenant actually owes the amount of rent the landlord claims. Similarly, a creditor could ask for a higher amount of money than the debtor owes. Perhaps the debtor made payments that have not been credited to the account. Or, the creditor may have charged fees or interest rates that exceed those included in the contract terms. In each of these situations, parties will be able to raise these issues at an inquest, even though a default judgement has been entered against them.
If you have any questions about this issue, or other legal questions, The Law Firm of Vaughn and Weber is here to help. Call (516) 858-2620 to schedule a free consultation. We are conveniently located in the heart of Long Island, at 393 Jericho Turnpike, Suite 208, Mineola, NY 11501.
*Contributions to the research and preparation of this blog were made by Jason Mays, J.D. (awaiting admission in NYS).