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Ward v. Marriott International, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

October 24, 2019

WARD
v.
MARRIOTT INTERNATIONAL, INC.

          DILLARD, P. J., GOBEIL and HODGES, JJ.

          Hodges, Judge.

         Plaintiff Thelma Ward ("Ward"), on behalf of her decedent spouse, Jimmie Ward, appeals from a trial court order granting Marriott International, Inc.'s ("Marriott") motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction and effectively denying her motion for default judgment. Because the trial court improperly applied existing law governing personal jurisdiction in Georgia and allowed Marriott to circumvent the strict requirements to open default, we reverse the dismissal of this case and remand to the trial court to proceed with Ward's motion for entry of default judgment.

         The record shows that on August 29, 2017, Ward, a Georgia resident, sued Marriott in Cobb County State Court for simple negligence and negligence per se after a handicap shower seat broke, causing Jimmie to suffer injuries. The injuries were sustained at a Marriott hotel in Texas. Ward's complaint alleged that

Defendant Marriott . . . is a corporation duly registered to conduct business in the State of Georgia. It is subject to the jurisdiction of this Court and may be served through its registered agent, Corporate Creations Network Inc. at 2985 Gordy Parkway, 1st Floor, Cobb, Marietta, Georgia 30066, USA.

         An affidavit of service indicates that Marriott was personally served through an authorized agent at that address on August 30, 2017.

         Marriott failed to answer the complaint, and on November 1, 2017, Ward moved for the entry of default judgment. The following day, Marriott answered the complaint and asserted a number of defenses, including lack of personal jurisdiction. The answer claimed that Marriott was "without sufficient information to form a belief as to the truthfulness of the allegations contained in" many paragraphs of the complaint. Marriott also served Ward with interrogatories and requests for the production of documents.

         On November 21, 2017, three weeks after Ward moved for the entry of default, Marriott filed a number of documents: an amended answer, a demand for jury trial, a request for discovery that admitted Marriott was in default for failing to timely file an answer, and, most importantly for purposes of this appeal, a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. Ward opposed the motion to dismiss and moved to strike Marriott's answer. Following oral argument on the pending motions, the trial court granted Marriott's motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, effectively denying Ward's motion for default judgment. In three related enumerations, Ward challenges the propriety of the trial court's grant of Marriott's motion to dismiss and denial of her motion for default judgment.

         This case presents the following jurisdictional issue: Can a foreign corporation registered and authorized to do business in Georgia avoid default by filing a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction after its time to open default as a matter of right has passed? A thorough analysis of existing Georgia default and personal jurisdiction law mandates that we answer the question in the negative.

         1. Georgia default law.

         Under Georgia law, a defendant must answer a complaint within 30 days after service of the summons and complaint upon it, unless otherwise provided by statue. OCGA § 9-11-12 (a). Failure to do so results in an automatic default:

If in any case an answer has not been filed within the time required by this chapter, the case shall automatically become in default unless the time for filing the answer has been extended as provided by law. The default may be opened as a matter of right by the filing of such defenses within 15 days of the day of default, upon the payment of costs. If the case is still in default after the expiration of the period of 15 days, the plaintiff at any time thereafter shall be entitled to verdict and judgment by default, in open court or in chambers, as if every item and paragraph of the complaint or other original pleading were supported by proper evidence[.]

OCGA § 9-11-55 (a). Accordingly, because Marriott failed to answer the complaint for 64 days, Ward was automatically entitled to default judgment as if every item and paragraph of her complaint were supported by proper evidence.[1] See Sidwell v. Sidwell, 237 Ga.App. 716, 717 (1) (515 S.E.2d 634) (1999). In fact, Marriott admitted in its subsequently filed request for discovery that "[t]he above-styled case is in default as [Marriott] failed to file a timely Answer."

         "After the 15-day grace period for opening default as a matter of right under OCGA § 9-11-55 (a), a trial court has no discretion to open default" unless the defendant complies with the conditions of OCGA § 9-11-55 (b). (Citation omitted.) Samadi v. Fed. Home Mortgage Loan, 344 Ga.App. 111, 115 (1) (809 S.E.2d 69) (2017). In addition, if default is not opened, the issue of liability is concluded, and the only issue a defendant can defend against is the amount of damages. Flanders v. Hill Aircraft & Leasing Corp., 137 Ga.App. 286, 287 (223 ...


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