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How to Turn a Piece of Paper into Justice

By Matthew E. Lee | 

Years ago, a friend of mine told a story about a case that really stuck with me. He and his team had worked their fingers to the bone for their client and, after a knockdown, drag-out fight at trial, the jury came back with a million dollar verdict. The client was elated and everyone celebrated. Then, the wheels came off. The jury’s verdict was uncollectable.

Most people think the story is over once the jury returns a verdict. Unfortunately, sometimes that is only the beginning. After winning a verdict, the process of turning that piece of paper (a judgment) into a recovery for what you’ve lost begins.

First, the verdict needs to be converted to a judgment. The jury’s job is to answer questions it receives from the judge, including oftentimes the question of how much money is due to a plaintiff as a result of a defendant’s negligence. The judgment is what goes in the court file saying exactly how much is owed after any costs and interest are added. Compare it with the process of getting a driver’s license: the verdict is like passing the driving test, the judgment is like getting the driver’s license card in your hand.

Second, the clerk of court will issue what is called a “Writ of Execution” in North Carolina. Having the court system collect money from a defendant after a judgment is called “executing on a judgment” and this is the document that’s sent to the sheriff so that he knows how much needs to be collected. Once the sheriff receives the Writ of Execution, he will begin investigating the defendant’s assets, including any bank accounts in the county. The sheriff has the power to seize funds in bank accounts or auction property to collect on a judgment.

Finally, you have the option to conduct a more intensive investigation of what assets are out there to satisfy your judgment by going straight to the source: the defendant. You can have the defendant come back to court and sit before a judge to answer questions about his assets: what he owns, how long he’s owned it, where it is located, what banks are used, etc. You can also issue written questions and requests that the defendant provide documents about his assets. As you might imagine, the defendant likely will not be too pleased about this process. But, failure to cooperate as required has the potential to land the defendant in jail.

At WBM, we begin the process of judgment collection long before we go to trial. We begin to lay the groundwork immediately after we welcome a client to our firm. When we evaluate your case, we consider any strategies we can employ to make sure that your judgment does not end up as nothing more than a piece of paper. If a company has wronged you, we will research corporate databases to find any other company it may be connected to and potentially join them in the suit as well. If an individual is to blame, we research public records to evaluate his assets and debts to weigh whether he could pay a judgment before we recommend that you pursue a lawsuit against him. Last but not least, WBM’s attorneys have decades of experience in finding insurance policies that could provide coverage for your claim.