Appeal from Order of January 30, 1976 at No. 825 of 1974, Court of Common Pleas, Civil Division, County of Beaver, Pennsylvania.
Oran W. Panner, Beaver, for appellants.
Thomas A. Lazaroff, Pittsburgh, for appellee.
Jacobs, Hoffman, Cercone, Price, Van der Voort and Spaeth, JJ. Hoffman, J., concurs in the result. Watkins, P. J., absent.
[ 248 Pa. Super. Page 534]
This case is an appeal by John and Elva Schutte from an order opening a default judgment which had been entered against the appellee, Valley Bargain Center, Inc. (Valley Bargain) for want of an appearance. Appellants, John and Elva Schutte, alleged that on June 28, 1972, Mr. Schutte, while a business visitor on the premises, fell in front of a retail store leased by Valley Bargain. On February 21, 1973, appellants' counsel wrote a letter to Valley Bargain advising that Mr. Schutte's injury was caused by a defect in the step or sidewalk of the premises. Appellants' counsel further advised Valley Bargain to turn the letter over to its insurance company and specifically requested that Valley Bargain or its insurance company communicate with him. Rather than responding to counsel's letter, Valley Bargain gave the letter to its landlord, Mrs. Kolumban, who in turn gave it to her insurance company, Erie Insurance Exchange. Valley Bargain was next alerted of appellants' claim when, on June 12, 1974, a complaint was personally served on Valley Bargain's manager. Once again, Valley Bargain gave the complaint to its landlord who forwarded it to her insurance company. Erie Insurance Exchange, which did not insure Valley Bargain, attempted to return the suit papers to Valley Bargain, but the manager refused to accept the papers. By letter dated June 20, 1974, the suit papers were mailed to Valley Bargain by Erie, and only then did Valley Bargain send the papers to its own insurance company. On
[ 248 Pa. Super. Page 535]
July 17, 1974, there being no communications to appellants' counsel, no appearance entered on behalf of Valley Bargain, and no answer filed, appellants took default judgment against Valley Bargain pursuant to Rule 1047 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure. Appellants' counsel immediately sent a letter to Valley Bargain, informing it of the action taken and enclosing a certified copy of the judgment. On September 11, 1974, Valley Bargain filed a petition for rule to show cause why the default judgment should not be opened, and the judgment was opened by order of court dated January 30, 1975. Hence this appeal.
The opening of a default judgment is a matter of judicial discretion which is to be exercised in trespass actions only if (1) the petition to open was promptly filed, and (2) there exists a legitimate explanation or excuse for the delay that occasioned the default judgment. Zellman v. Fickenscher, 452 Pa. 596, 307 A.2d 837 (1973). In the instant case, we believe that the lower court abused its discretion in ordering the default judgment opened.*fn1
Appellee, Valley Bargain, established a legitimate explanation for the delay that occasioned the default judgment. Since the letter from appellants' counsel alleged a defect in the step or sidewalk of the premises as the cause of appellants' injuries, and since Valley Bargain was only a lessee of the premises, it was reasonable for Valley Bargain to turn the letter over to its landlord. Furthermore, Valley Bargain was not informed prior to June 20, 1974, by either its landlord or its landlord's insurance company, that this procedure would not protect its interests. Therefore, Valley Bargain's failure to enter an appearance prior to June 20, 1974, was excused because it rested upon Valley Bargain's reasonable, though mistaken, belief that the suit papers had
[ 248 Pa. Super. Page 536]
been properly forwarded. As we recently noted in Sprouse v. Post No. 7155 VFW, 237 Pa. Super. 419, 423, 352 A.2d 134, 136 (1975):
"We are reluctant to let stand a default judgment where a litigant has taken steps that he reasonably believes will result in the protection of his interests. This would be a different case had [defendant] ignored the process and done nothing. In this case, ...