Competence in Georgia Personal Injury Cases

Although the issue of mental competence is more often raised in criminal defense, not Georgia civil defense matters, sometimes a defendant is claimed to be incompetent in a personal injury lawsuit. In a recent case, a plaintiff served a defendant with a complaint and the defendant did not file responsive pleadings. However, the defendant argued the default judgment taken against her was fundamentally unfair because she was mentally incompetent and was not notified of the entry of default judgment.

The case arose while the defendant was driving a car she didn’t own and struck the plaintiff who was riding his bicycle. He sued her. She didn’t answer and a default judgment of $2,916,204 was entered against her a few months later. In the judgment, the trial court ordered the defendant to give the woman a copy of the order entering judgment by certified mail.

The man did not give her a copy of the default judgment, later claiming he couldn’t locate her. Instead he sent a copy of the judgment to the insurance carrier who had covered the car she was driving. The insurance carrier’s attorney found the defendant. Through that attorney she moved to set aside the default judgment on the basis that she was mentally incompetent and hadn’t gotten notice.
A hearing was held on her mental competence. Earlier cases have found that a judgment rendered against an insane person is voidable, even if counsel represents the insane person. “Insane” has been explained by the court to mean the same thing as mentally incompetent. In this case, however, the trial court did not find the defendant was mentally incompetent.

The parties had not presented authority on the issue of mental competence for purposes of rendering a civil judgment voidable. The appellate court explained that mental incompetence may be found where an individual lacks the capacity to manage his or her affairs.

The appellate court reasoned there was substantial evidence to support the trial court’s finding that the defendant was not mentally incompetent. The defendant had a lifelong history of significant mental illness, but had never been adjudicated mentally incompetent. She had been a criminal defendant in the past and two attorneys that had represented her in guilty pleas testified they wouldn’t have advised her to plead that way if she seemed mentally incompetent to them. Similarly the law enforcement officer that served her with the personal injury complaint testified she didn’t seem mentally incapacitated. A psychiatrist testified she had borderline intellectual functioning and that people with that level of functioning usually didn’t have guardians.

With respect to the issue of notice the defendant had raised, the appellate court explained that the plaintiff had properly served her in the first place and she should have ensured an answer was filed. Therefore the default judgment could not b set aside. It found that the plaintiff’s failure to comply with the trial court’s requirement that he notify the defendant was not the type of error that would allow the trial court to vacate the judgment. Therefore, the judgment below was affirmed.

If you are seriously injured in a car accident because somebody else was negligent or reckless, you may have grounds for a personal injury lawsuit. Experienced Atlanta personal injury attorney Terrence R. Bethune can evaluate your case and fight for any compensation you may deserve. Contact us at 404-875-7800 or via our online form.

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