Justices uphold award against builder, calling him 'contumacious'

Steve Korris Jul. 2, 2010, 11:45am

MOUNT VERNON – Robert Higgins avoided a lawsuit so flagrantly for so long that indignant Fifth District appeals judges called him contumacious.

The word means stubbornly refusing to submit to authority, or just plain disobedient.

On June 8, Fifth District judges affirmed Madison County Circuit Judge Dennis Ruth, who awarded about $80,000 against Higgins in a suit over a home building project.

"The record supports the trial court's ruling that Higgins had demonstrated an intentional and long standing disregard for the court's procedures and rulings," Justice Bruce Stewart wrote.

"The court spent years balancing the parties' competing interests and gave Higgins more than sufficient opportunity to comply," he wrote.

Terry Eldridge and Marilou Eldridge hired Higgins to build a home but sued him in 2000, claiming breach of contract and negligent workmanship.

Higgins counterclaimed for breach of contract in 2001, adding a third party claim against Mark Lees for interference with the contract.

In 2003, Higgins's lawyer, Chris Hunter, withdrew due to differences between them.

At a case management conference, no one represented Higgins and he didn't appear.

The Eldridges and Lees moved for default judgment, and former circuit judge Nicholas Byron granted it on all issues of liability.

Higgins retained Clifford Emons, who moved to vacate the judgment.

Byron vacated it in 2004, giving Higgins 30 days to comply with discovery requests.

When Higgins didn't comply, the Eldridges and Lees moved to impose sanctions and strike all defense pleadings.

Byron gave Higgins 30 more days, and Higgins didn't comply.

In 2005, Emons withdrew due to lack of cooperation.

Kevin Babb took over, but he withdrew in 2006.

After another case management conference without a defendant, Byron again granted default judgment on liability.

Byron held a hearing on damages, but Higgins didn't show.

Higgins retained Todd Sivia, who moved to vacate the default judgment.

In 2007, Byron reserved a ruling and ordered Higgins to appear for deposition.

In 2008, the Eldridges moved to strike Higgins's pleadings.

Byron set a deposition date for Higgins and warned that if he didn't appear, he would strike his pleadings.

Byron retired and the case passed to Ruth, who struck the pleadings.

Higgins moved to vacate the order, claiming he missed the deposition due to pinkeye.

At a hearing last year, Ruth told Sivia his client had no respect for the court.

Ruth said Higgins wasted the court's energies for many years.

He awarded $79,315.33 to the Eldridges, plus costs.

Higgins appealed, but he only aggravated Fifth District judges.

"Higgins's actions showed a deliberate, contumacious, and unwarranted disregard for the court's authority, and the court
imposed the harshest sanction only as a last resort after all other attempts to compel compliance had failed for many years," Stewart wrote.

Justices Richard Goldenhersh and James Wexstten concurred.

Bill Walker represented the Eldridges.

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