How Do You Collect a Personal Injury Judgment in Tennessee?
When you see a headline about someone winning a large personal injury judgment in court, you probably do not stop to think about how—or even if—the plaintiff actually collects damages from the defendant. A judgment, after all, is really nothing more than a piece of paper signed by a judge that says the plaintiff is entitled to a certain sum of money. The plaintiff is then responsible for getting the defendant to pay up—and that process can take longer than it took to get the judgment in the first place.
Judgment Liens & Garnishments
Assuming the defendant does not voluntarily pay a judgment, the plaintiff has a number of options. If the defendant owns a home or other real estate, the plaintiff can attach a judgment lien against the property. The judgment lien then allows the plaintiff to seek a writ of execution, which is an order to the local sheriff to seize the defendant’s property, auction it off, and use the proceeds to satisfy the original judgment.
While some states permit judgment liens against other types of property, such as automobiles, Tennessee only recognizes liens against real property.
A second collection method involves garnishing the defendant’s wages or bank accounts. The specific procedures for garnishment vary throughout Tennessee. But the basic idea is that the defendant’s employer or bank is served with a garnishment order. These third parties are then legally required to turn over the garnished funds to the plaintiff.
In the case of wage garnishment, the employer must withhold a certain amount until the judgment is satisfied. Tennessee law does set limits on wage garnishment. A plaintiff may only garnish the lesser of 25 percent of the defendant’s weekly “disposable earnings” or the amount by which the defendant’s wages exceed 30 times the federal minimum wage.
To put that in plain English, suppose the defendant earns gross wages of $500 per week. After the employer makes mandatory deductions for income tax, Social Security, and so forth, the defendant receives a net paycheck of $450. This is the defendant’s “disposable income.” The plaintiff can garnish the lower of 25 percent of this amount ($112.50) or 30 times the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 per hour (or $217.50 per week). Obviously the lower figure, which the plaintiff is entitled to garnish, is $112.50.
A Knoxville Personal Injury Lawyer Can Help
Before you can attach a judgment lien or garnishment order, you must first locate the defendant’s assets. Most defendants will not volunteer this information—and in some cases they may actively try to hide assets—so you may need to conduct a “debtor’s examination,” which allows you to force the defendant to answer questions under oath about his or her assets and income. A defendant who fails to appear for a debtor’s examination can be held in contempt and sent to jail.
Conducting a debtor’s examination, locating assets, and attaching liens and garnishment orders can involve a significant commitment of time and resources. That is why you need to work with a Tennessee personal injury lawyer who understands the process and can help you collect on your judgment. Contact the offices of Fox Farley Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Knoxville or Clinton if you need help today.