WILLIAM PRIEST et al. v. KEVIN W. EDMONDS et al., SC 18407

Judicial District of Hartford


      Trial Court Procedure; Whether Trial Court Properly Denied Motion to Open Default Judgment for Failure to Appear at Trial, Where Defendants Appeared at Trial Solely Through Counsel. Pursuant to a contract between the parties, the defendants, Kevin W. Edmonds and his company Prescott Builders, were to build an addition to the plaintiffs' home.  Believing that construction was not going in accordance with the terms of the contract, the plaintiffs terminated the defendants' services.  The plaintiffs then brought this action against the defendants, alleging breach of contract, fraud and violations of the Home Improvement Act, General Statutes § 20-418 et seq.  In response, the defendants filed special defenses and counterclaims, alleging that the plaintiffs had breached the contract.  Two days before the trial was set to begin, the defendants filed a motion for continuance, claiming that Edmonds was residing outside of Connecticut and that he was unable to travel to Connecticut on the scheduled trial date due to work commitments.  The trial court denied the motion.  The parties then filed a joint trial management report, which listed Edmonds as a witness.  At trial, Edmonds did not appear personally but appeared only through counsel.  As a result, the plaintiffs filed a motion for default for failure to appear at trial.  The defendants' counsel argued that, pursuant to Practice Book § 17-19, it was permissible for Edmonds to appear at trial by counsel only.  Section 17-19 provides that "[i]f a party fails . . . without proper excuse to appear in person or by counsel for trial, the party may be nonsuited or defaulted by the judicial authority."  Counsel also noted that the plaintiffs had not subpoenaed Edmonds to appear personally at trial.  The trial court granted the motion for default, noting that Edmonds had adequate notice of when the trial was to take place and had been notified that he was expected to be a witness.  The defendants filed a motion to open the default judgment, claiming that Edmonds properly appeared at trial through counsel and that his personal absence did not relieve the plaintiffs of their burden of putting on and proving their case.  The trial court denied the motion.  The defendants appeal from the decision, claiming that the trial court's decision granting the default judgment against them for failure to appear at trial constituted plain error and that the trial court abused its discretion in denying their motion to open the judgment.