The opinion of the court was delivered by: Timmons-goodson, Judge.
Appeal by defendant from order entered 28 February 1997 by Judge William H. Helms in Union County Superior Court. Heard in the Court of Appeals 24 February 1998.
This action arises out of a single-car accident, which occurred between the evening hours of 30 April and the early morning of 1 May 1993, and resulted in the death of all of the vehicle's occupants. There were no eye witnesses to the accident, but the evidence tends to show that on the evening of 30 April 1993, Dwaine Lydell Darby, Patty Teel and Melissa Mullis were passengers in a vehicle driven by Otis Blount. Further, evidence indicates that, on that same evening prior to the accident, Blount purchased and drank alcoholic beverages, which he had obtained from the Monroe ABC Store and a convenience store owned by Monroe Oil Company, Inc. After drinking two pints of alcohol, Blount and his passengers traveled to a local night club in Monroe, North Carolina. The four later left the night club, again with Blount driving, and were en route to a friend's house, when the car left the roadway and struck a tree, killing all of the vehicle's occupants. Police records indicate that a police officer was dispatched to the accident site after receiving a report of an accident, on 1 May 1993 at 12:15 a.m.
As a result of the accident, on 7 October 1994, plaintiff instituted this action against Monroe Oil Company, the City of Monroe Board of Alcoholic Beverage Control, Liston S. Darby (hereinafter "Darby"), Administrator of the Estate of Dwaine Lydell Darby, and Joseph Hutcherson, Administrator of the Estate of Otis Stephen Blount. Therein, plaintiff alleged that the accident occurred "on or about May 1, 1993." Darby was served with a copy of the complaint on 13 October 1994, and Attorney R. Kenneth Helms, Jr., who had represented Darby in a related matter, sent a copy of the complaint to Allstate Insurance Company, (hereinafter "Allstate"), the insurance carrier of Darby's deceased, and an unnamed defendant herein.
Plaintiff filed a motion to amend the complaint on 7 March 1995, and attached a proposed amended complaint. This motion was granted in open court on 10 April 1995, and by order entered 2 May 1995. On 18 April 1995, plaintiff filed the amended complaint and served it on all of the parties. Allstate, however, contends that Darby was not served with the amended complaint.
Plaintiff filed a motion for entry of default on 2 January 1996, and entry of default was filed on 3 January 1996. On 4 January 1996, Attorney James W. Pope filed a motion to withdraw as counsel for defendant Darby and Blount. Mr. Pope was allowed to withdraw by order entered 16 January 1996. Thereafter, on 1 May 1996, plaintiff took a voluntary dismissal without prejudice against Monroe Oil Company, the City of Monroe Board of Alcoholic Beverage Control, and Joseph Hutcherson.
Plaintiff subsequently filed a motion for entry of default judgment on 20 May 1996. By judgment entered 21 August 1996, plaintiff's motion for entry of default judgment was allowed. Allstate and Darby filed a motion to set aside entry of default and default judgment on 11 November 1996, and this motion was denied by order entered 25 February 1997. Defendant Darby appeals.
On appeal, defendant brings forth two arguments by which he argues that the trial court erred in first denying his motion to set aside the entry of default and, then, denying his motion to set aside entry of default judgment. For the reasons discussed herein, we reject these arguments, and accordingly, affirm the order of the trial court denying defendant's motions.
Entry of default against a defendant results in all allegations of plaintiff's complaint being deemed admitted against that defendant, and thereafter, defendant is prohibited from defending on the merits of the case. Spartan Leasing v. Pollard, 101 N.C. App. 450, 400 S.E.2d 476 (1991). The entry of default is only an interlocutory act looking toward subsequent entry of final judgment of default. State Employees' Credit Union, Inc. v. Gentry, 75 N.C. App. 260, 330 S.E.2d 645 (1985). While entry of default may be set aside pursuant to Rule 55(d) and a showing of good cause, Bailey v. Gooding, 60 N.C. App. 459, 299 S.E.2d 267, disc. review denied, 308 N.C. 675, 304 S.E.2d 753 (1983), after judgment of default has been entered, the motion to vacate is governed by Rule 60(b), Pendley v. Ayers, 45 N.C. App. 692, 263 S.E.2d 833 (1980). A prior judgment may be set aside for "[m]istake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect" pursuant to Rule 60(b)(1) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure. See N.C.R. Civ. P. 60(b)(1). A party moving to set aside a judgment under subdivision (b)(1) must show not only mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect, but also the existence of a meritorious defense. Baker v. Baker, 115 N.C. App. 337, 444 S.E.2d 478 (1994). Subsection (b) of Rule 60 only applies to final judgments and orders; and the subsection has no application to interlocutory orders.
A motion for relief under Rule 60(b) is addressed to the sound discretion of the trial court, and will be disturbed on appeal only upon a showing of an abuse of that discretion. Gallbronner v. Mason, 101 N.C. App. 362, 399 S.E.2d 139, disc. review denied, 329 N.C. 268, 407 S.E.2d 835 (1991). The facts as found by the trial court are conclusive on appeal if supported by any competent evidence. Norton v. Sawyer, 30 N.C. App. 420, 227 S.E.2d 148, cert. denied, 291 N.C. 176, 229 S.E.2d 689 (1976). However, the court's Conclusions of law are reviewable on appeal. Id.
It is well settled that provisions relating to the setting aside of default judgments should be liberally construed so as to give litigants an opportunity to have a case disposed of on the merits. Howard v. Williams, 40 N.C. App. 575, 253 S.E.2d 571 (1979). However, statutory provisions designed to protect plaintiffs from defendants who do not give reasonable attention to important business affairs such as lawsuits cannot be ignored. Id.
As judgment was entered on default in the instant case, we move immediately to the issue of whether the trial Judge erred in denying defendant's motion to vacate this judgment pursuant to Rule 60(b). We proceed thusly as the propriety of the trial court's denial of defendant's motion to vacate entry of default is irrelevant, if the trial court properly denied defendant's motion to vacate entry of default judgment.
Defendant first contends that the default judgment is void pursuant to Rule 60(b)(4), because the amended complaint was never served on defendant. We cannot agree.
By affidavit dated 16 January 1997, Attorney R. Kenneth Helms, Jr., who along with another attorney represented the Estate of Dwaine Lydell Darby through the duly appointed Administrator, defendant Darby, stated that "Liston Darby received a copy of the Amended Complaint and subsequently forwarded the same document to us. However, neither I, Mr. Lee, nor to my knowledge, anyone else from my office forwarded a copy of this Amended Complaint to Allstate Insurance Company. I did not realize at the time that the Amended Complaint changed the alleged date of the accident." Because there is sufficient evidence to support the trial court's finding that Darby had been served with a copy of the amended complaint, this finding is conclusive on appeal. Hence, this argument fails.
We next address defendant's argument that defendant's failure to file responsive pleadings was due to excusable neglect. "[O]rdinarily[,] the inexcusable neglect of a responsible agent will be imputed to the principal in a proceeding to set aside a judgment by default." Stephens v. Childers, 236 N.C. 348, 351, 72 S.E.2d 849, 851 (1952). Further, it has been noted that the question of whether neglect is excusable "`is to be determined with reference to the litigant's neglect, and not that of his attorney, or a defendant's ...