If a defendant (the person or business sued) doesn't appear at trial, the plaintiff will likely win—but not always. The judge will verify that the plaintiff served the defendant with court papers, that neither party requested a postponement, and that there is some basis (evidence) supporting the plaintiff’s case before issuing a default judgment.
Small claims courts schedule multiple trials during the same time slot. The court knows that many cases will settle, and some will resolve by default. Those that remain will have a short amount of time to put on the case. Here's what will likely happen.
Example. "Your Honor, I own the Racafrax Auto Repair Shop. On January 11, 20xx, I repaired defendant's 2009 Honda Civic. He paid me $500 and agreed to pay another $500 on March 1. He hasn’t made the second payment. I have copies of the contract defendant signed and several unpaid bills I sent him. I am asking for a judgment of $500 plus $55 for my court filing fee and the cost of having the papers served." After reviewing the evidence, the court will likely award the plaintiff a money judgment in the amount requested.
The defendant won’t have a right to appeal the judgment in most states unless the judge agrees to reopen the case by vacating the default judgment (more below).
Sometimes the court enters a default judgment that isn’t fair to the defendant. The defendant’s remedy will be to file a motion asking the judge to set aside or vacate the default. If the defendant wins, the case will be set for a new trial.
The motion’s success will likely depend on whether the defendant knew about the trial date and other pertinent factors.
If a judgment creditor already received a writ of execution (the paperwork needed to collect a money judgment, although it could have a different name in your court) to collect the small claims judgment, most states will recall (stay) the writ while the motion to vacate is pending. If the creditor served the writ of execution in an effort to collect—for instance, your employer received the writ and is garnishing your wages—the defendant must file a motion to suspend the writ of execution (often called a Motion to Stay or Quash the Writ of Execution), too.
For more information about how to complete any of these steps, consult your small claims court clerk, your local self-help office, or your court’s website. Getting the ball rolling might be as simple as filling out, filing, and serving court forms.
As stated above, a defendant should file a motion to vacate the judgment immediately after learning about missing the original hearing. It doesn't make any difference if the hearing you missed was months before, as long as you move to set it aside immediately upon learning about it.
A judge won’t grant the motion if too much time elapses between the time you learned of the problem and filed the motion (your state will have a limitations period for filing the motion). Once filed, the motion will be set for a hearing before the judge.
Each side will have an opportunity to argue for or against vacating the judgment. The plaintiff, benefiting from a default judgment, will understandably prefer that it stands. The plaintiff will likely emphasize that they played by the rules and showed up on the original hearing date, whereas the defendant failed to do so and, assuming it's true, failed to request a postponement. If the plaintiff had witnesses ready to testify at the original hearing, and these people will have a hard time coming to court a second time, plaintiffs should also mention this (and perhaps submit written statements from the witnesses).
The defendant will present the position asserted in the motion to vacate the default judgment.
If the small claims judge grants the defendant's motion, then one of two things will happen.
If the small claims judge decides not to set aside the default, in most states, the defendant can appeal the judge's refusal (but not the decision in the case itself) to a higher court.
If the higher court judge agrees with the small claims court judge, then the plaintiff will win, thereby ending the case. If, however, the appeals court judge disagrees with the small claims court judge and vacates the default judgment, and if both parties are present and agree, the appeals court judge in most states can hear and decide the case immediately. If both parties aren't present or don’t agree to argue the merits (the underlying dispute), then the appeals court judge will order the small claims court to schedule another hearing.