Defendant ordered to pay more than $2 million in wrongful death suit

By Angela Underwood | Apr 27, 2017

SAN JOSE — A California appeals court recently denied a more than $2 million appeal in a wrongful death suit.

In an opinion delivered April 14 by Sixth Appellate District Chief Justice Conrad L. Rushing and associate justices Eugene M. Premo and Frankline D. Elia, the court denied appellant and defendant Jonathan J. Headman Jr.'s request to have a default judgment against him dismissed by plaintiffs Ung Tiong Ung and six other family members.

The lawsuit named Headman in a 2003 in a wrongful death lawsuit after his brother Timothy Headman killed Ung’s relatives while driving his brother’s truck while intoxicated. According to the Ung, all attempts to serve Jonathan Headman with papers were to no avail, which is why he served Jonathan Headman by publishing it four times in a 2004 issue of the San Jose Post Record. After failing to appear, a 2005 default judgment was brought against Jonathan Headman.

Twelve years later, Jonathan Headman came forward, claiming “he never received actual or constructive notice of the lawsuit” and “was abroad when the summons was published,” according to the opinion. He argued that during no time during his decade-long and limited contact with his brother was he made aware that he was named in the wrongful death suit. The trial court, however, denied his motion to vacate all judgement against him.

In April 2015, Ung renewed default judgments against the Headman brothers. Two days later, Jonathan Headman claimed “this was the first time he realized that the judgment had been personally entered against him,” according to the opinion. Jonathan Headman said that although he was aware his brother had killed two people in 2002 in an auto accident with one of his three uninsured dump trucks for his hauling company, he did not know he was named in the wrongful death suit before moving to Taiwan in 2004.

After getting married and returning to the United States in 2006, Jonathan Headman argued “he had sporadic contact with Timothy, but Timothy never mentioned the lawsuit” until he and his wife attempted to purchase a home in 2015, according to the opinion. Jonathan Headman “did not believe the default judgment applied to him, because he was not involved in the accident, the case was almost 10 years old and nobody had ever attempted to collect the judgment against him,” the court said.

Ung disagreed, arguing that the motion to vacate on the grounds the request was not only untimely, but it was also “unlikely that both Timothy and [the] appellant’s father failed to mention the lawsuit to appellant, even if they had a strained relationship,” according to the opinion, which also noted that Headman’s lawyer “lacked personal knowledge of the circumstances leading to the default judgment” 

The justice panel ruled “the trial court could have reasonably found [the] appellant’s declaration asserting lack of actual notice not to be credible,” and did not find that “the trial court abused its discretion when it denied appellant’s motion to vacate the renewal of the default judgment.”

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