In Airs Aromatics v. CBL Data Recovery Technologies, 2018 S.O.S. 2612, filed May 23, 2018, CBL Data Recovery Technologies, Inc. (CBL) appealed an order denying its motion to set aside a default judgment entered in favor of Airs Aromatics, LLC (Airs). CBL argued that because the trial court awarded damages above the amount demanded in the complaint, the default judgment was void pursuant to § 580 (a) and § 585 (c) of the California Code of Civil Procedure.
The California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District, Division One, agreed. The Court simply reaffirmed the long-standing rule of § 580 (a) that “The relief granted to the plaintiff, if there is no answer, cannot exceed that demanded in the complaint.” While there are exceptions to § 580 for personal injury or wrongful death cases and cases requesting punitive damages. § 580 (a), § 425.11, § 425.115), none applied to Airs’s request for compensatory damages.
Other statutes parallel § 580′s rule that a complaint’s prayer or demand for relief must state the amount of damages sought, except in cases involving personal injury, wrongful death, or punitive damages. (§ 425.10 (a)(2), § 425.10 (b).)
§ 585 (c) states that a plaintiff requesting a default judgment “may apply for the relief demanded in the complaint.” Further, a court “shall render judgment in the plaintiff’s favor for that relief, not exceeding the amount stated in the complaint . . . as appears by the evidence to be just.”
§ 580 is strictly construed “in accordance with its plain language” and “a plaintiff cannot be granted more relief than is asked for in the complaint.” In re Marriage of Lippel (1990), 51 Cal.3d 1160, 1166. A default judgment greater than the amount specifically demanded in the complaint is void as beyond the court’s jurisdiction. Greenup v. Rodman (1986) 42 Cal.3d 822, 826; see Finney v. Gomez (2003) 111 Cal.App.4th 527, 534 [“[T]he courts have reaffirmed the language of section 580 is mandatory. Therefore, ‘in all default judgments the demand sets a ceiling on recovery.’ “].)
While there’s unquestionably a substantial amount of precedent that delineates the rule, the case demonstrates the (apparent) necessity to yet again reaffirm the rule. It’s one thing for a plaintiff to state in a complaint that it is requesting damages “in excess of $25,000 and in an amount to be proven at trial.” This will certainly establish jurisdiction and move the case to trial, however, if the defendant defaults problems can clearly arise if the plaintiff’s prayer only states it is requesting damages “in excess” of $25,000, even though it can prove actual damages in the millions. Because $25,000 is the only number listed in the complaint, that’s the limit on any recovery in case of default. What makes the rule even more unforgiving is that any default judgment in excess of the amount stated in the complaint is not merely voidable, but void.
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