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United Airlines, Inc. v. McCubbins

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

April 17, 2018

UNITED AIRLINES, INC., IMPROPERLY NAMED AS UNITED AIRLINES CORPORATION APPELLANT
v.
MARTIN H. MCCUBBINS APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 11/25/2015

          HINDS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, FIRST JUDICIAL DISTRICT, HON. WINSTON L. KIDD

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: JOHN THOMAS ROUSE

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: WAYNE E. FERRELL JR.

          BEFORE GRIFFIS, P.J., CARLTON AND WILSON, JJ.

          WILSON, J.

         ¶1. Martin McCubbins bought a round trip ticket from Jackson to Panama City, Panama on United Airlines (United). McCubbins alleges that on February 6, 2013, before he departed Jackson and again during a layover in Houston, United employees examined his passport and ticket and assured him that everything was in order. Nonetheless, when McCubbins arrived in Panama, he was detained and informed that he would not be allowed to enter the country because his passport's expiration date was less than 90 days from the date of his travel. McCubbins was forced to spend an unpleasant night in a Panamanian holding pen before he was allowed to return to the United States the next morning.

         ¶2. After returning home, McCubbins contacted customer service representatives at United, but United told him that he was responsible for verifying the requirements for international travel and entry into a foreign country. United did give McCubbins a coupon for ten percent off his next ticket to fly the friendly skies. Dissatisfied with blame and a coupon, McCubbins filed suit against United in Hinds County Circuit Court.

         ¶3. McCubbins served a summons and the complaint on United's registered agent for service of process in Mississippi, CT Corporation (CT). Unfortunately, the complaint named the defendant as "United Airlines Corporation, " an Illinois corporation "with a principal place of business located at 1200 East Algonquin Road, Elk Grove Township, IL." This information was out of date or just incorrect. In point of fact, United is "United Airlines, Inc., " a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business at 233 South Wacker Drive in Chicago. Because the summons and complaint misnamed United, CT did not forward the documents to United, United did not answer, and McCubbins ultimately obtained a default judgment against "United Airlines Corporation" for $70, 000.

         ¶4. United first learned of the judgment when McCubbins's attorney mailed a letter demanding payment to United's CEO at United's headquarters on South Wacker Drive in Chicago. United subsequently moved to set aside the default judgment, [1] arguing that the judgment (1) was void for lack of proper service of process or, in the alternative, (2) should be set aside under the three-part "balancing test" applicable to a motion to set aside a default judgment under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b). See Tucker v. Williams, 198 So.3d 299, 309 (¶23) (Miss. 2016). The circuit court denied United's motion as "not well taken."

         ¶5. On appeal, United makes the same two arguments as in the circuit court. We hold that service of process on United's registered agent was sufficient. However, we agree with United that the default judgment must be set aside under the three-part balancing test. Therefore, we reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. Additional facts are discussed below as necessary.

         ANALYSIS

         I. SERVICE OF PROCESS

         ¶6. United's first argument on appeal is that service of process was improper and ineffective because the summons and complaint named "United Airlines Corporation, " not United Airlines, Inc., and misidentified United's state of incorporation and address. "In the absence of proper service of process, the court lacks jurisdiction, so any default judgment that it enters is void." S & M Trucking LLC v. Rogers Oil Co. of Columbia, 195 So.3d 217, 221 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016). "If a default judgment is void, the trial court has no discretion and must set the judgment aside." McCain v. Dauzat, 791 So.2d 839, 842 (¶7) (Miss. 2001). "Sufficiency of service of process is a jurisdictional issue, which is reviewed de novo." BB Buggies Inc. v. Leon, 150 So.3d 90, 95 (¶6) (Miss. 2014).

         ¶7. McCubbins filed his complaint alleging negligence and breach of contract in circuit court on January 16, 2015. As noted above, the complaint misidentified United as "United Airlines Corporation, " an Illinois corporation with a principal place of business in the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove Township. In fact, United is "United Airlines, Inc., " a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in downtown Chicago.

         ¶8. McCubbins did, however, serve a summons and the complaint on United's registered agent for service of process in Mississippi, CT. The summons and complaint were served personally on Matthew Thiebodeaux, an employee of CT, on February 12, 2015, by Melissa Rand, an employee of McCubbins's attorney, Wayne Ferrell. Rand and Thiebodeaux knew one another by name because she regularly served process on CT.

         ¶9. In addition, Exhibit A attached to the complaint served on CT is the eTicket itinerary and receipt issued by United to McCubbins. Notably, the ticket was sent ...


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