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Default Judgment Vacated by Plaintiff’s Failure to Serve Amended Complaint

U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, January 7, 2022

The plaintiff Rhonda J. Gorton filed this asbestos-related lawsuit on behalf of her husband, the decedent Thomas Gorton, alleging the decedent contracted mesothelioma as a result of his exposure to asbestos-containing products. The defendant Warren Pumps did not respond to the complaint or otherwise have counsel enter an appearance on its behalf. On or about March 6, 2018, the decedent passed away. On July 9, 2018, the plaintiff filed an amended complaint alleging a wrongful death claim for the first time. There was no evidence that the plaintiff caused the amended complaint to be served upon Warren Pumps.

On October 6, 2021, default judgment was entered against Warren Pumps for Warren Pumps’ “failure to appear, plead, or otherwise defend” in this case. On October 8, 2021, the counsel for Warren Pumps entered an appearance on behalf of their client. On the same day, Warren Pumps filed the within motion to vacate entry of default. 

Rule 55(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that “[f]or good cause shown the court may set aside an entry of default and, if a judgment by default has been entered, may likewise set it aside in accordance with Rule 60(b).” Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(4), “[o]n motion and upon such terms as are just, the court may relieve a party . . . from a final judgment” if “the judgment is void.” A default judgment rendered by a court which lacked personal jurisdiction over the defendant is void. Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714, 725-727, 24 L. Ed. 565 (1877). A defendant may challenge the personal jurisdiction of the rendering court by attacking the validity of the service of process. Stranahan Gear Co. v. NL Indus. Inc., 800 F.2d 53, 56-57 (3d Cir.1986).

There was no evidence that the plaintiff served Warren Pumps with the amended complaint in compliance with the federal rules or Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 404. The plaintiff was required under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5(a)(2) to serve the amended complaint upon Warren Pumps because the plaintiff set forth a new claim for wrongful death against Warren Pumps in that pleading. Rule 5(a)(2) provides: “No service is required on a party who is in default for failing to appear. But a pleading that asserts a new claim for relief against such a party must be served on that party under Rule 4.”  The plaintiff set forth a new claim for wrongful death in the amended complaint and did not properly serve the pleading upon Warren Pumps. 

Due to the plaintiff’s failure to serve Warren Pumps with the amended complaint, the court did not have personal jurisdiction over Warren Pumps when default judgment was entered against it. Under those circumstances, the default judgment was void and Warren Pumps was entitled to relief from that judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(4). Accordingly, the court granted Warren Pumps’ motion, and vacated the default judgment.

Read the full decision here.