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Default Judgment in Palm Beach County is Set Aside Due to Improper Service of Process, Despite Multiple Attempts over Several Years – Krisztian v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.

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Before a court can rule on the issues presented by a lawsuit, the court must first determine that it has jurisdiction over both the parties and the subject matter of the suit. If either is found lacking, the court does not have the power to adjudicate the case.

“Subject matter jurisdiction” refers to a court’s competence to hear a case in a particular category (regardless of the parties thereto), while “personal jurisdiction” means that the court has authority over a particular person or business.

In the recent case of Krisztian v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., the District Court of Appeal of the State of Florida for the Fourth District was called upon to determine whether the Circuit Court for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit in Palm Beach County had personal jurisdiction over a defendant in a subrogation case arising from a car accident.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff in the case was an insurance company that filed suit against the defendant as a subrogee sometime in 2008. For some three years, the insurance company attempted to serve the defendant with process, but it was unsuccessful in doing so.

Then, in 2011, the insurance company attempted to effectuate substitute service upon a co-resident at what it alleged was the defendant’s usual place of abode, and the trial court later granted a default judgment to the insurance company. In 2012, the trial court set aside the judgment on the grounds that the residence was not, in fact, the defendant’s usual place of abode.

Later in 2012, the insurance company served the defendant through a process server at a business address, using “designated” service. In 2013, the insurance company again sought a default judgment against the defendant. In 2014, the defendant moved to quash service, but the trial court denied his motion and entered default judgment against him in the amount of $166,724.

Proceedings on Appeal

The defendant appealed the trial court’s entry of default judgment, arguing that the insurance company had failed to meet its burden to strictly comply with the statutory requirements for substitute service. Reviewing the trial court’s decision on the motion to quash de novo, the court reversed, vacated the default judgment, and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. According to the court, substitute service statutes such as Florida Statutes § 48.031(6) are an exception to the rule requiring personal service and should be strictly construed. Furthermore, the burden in proving the validity of service of process is on the party seeking to invoke the court’s jurisdiction.

Although it appeared that the defendant may have been avoiding service, the trial court did not include such a finding in its order, and the appellate court was not provided with a transcript from the hearing. Since the insurance company did not meet its burden of proving that it had properly served the defendant, the trial court did not have personal jurisdiction over him. 

For Assistance with a Florida Motor Vehicle Accident Lawsuit

If you or a family member needs legal advice about a Florida motor vehicle accident case, contact the law firm of Cohn & Smith at 954-431-8100. We have offices throughout South Florida and can assist you with your Fort Lauderdale, Pembroke Pines, Davie, or other injury case.

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