Summary judgment is a mechanism used in civil lawsuits, including personal injury lawsuits, to expedite the litigation process and avoid unnecessary trials. The primary purpose of summary judgment is to eliminate trials where there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
To further unpack this concept:
- No Genuine Dispute: For a court to grant summary judgment, there must be no genuine dispute about the key facts of the case. This means that after both parties have had an opportunity to present their evidence and argue their case, it is clear that there are no important facts that they fundamentally disagree on.
- Material Fact: A material fact is one that might affect the outcome of the lawsuit. If parties disagree about an immaterial fact, that is, a fact that doesn’t impact the case’s outcome, this disagreement is not sufficient to prevent the court from granting summary judgment.
- Entitled to Judgment as a Matter of Law: Essentially, this means that if all the key facts were accepted as true, the party moving for summary judgment would win based on the law alone.
A summary judgment motion is made after the plaintiff and defendant have exchanged relevant information during the discovery process but before the case goes to trial. The party seeking summary judgment (either plaintiff or defendant) has to show that there is no factual issue to be tried and that they are entitled to prevail as a matter of law. This can be achieved through the use of sworn affidavits, depositions, and other documentary evidence.
If the moving party meets this initial burden, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party to show that there is indeed a genuine issue for trial. They need to produce evidence that would allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict in their favor.
When considering a motion for summary judgment, courts view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. They make no credibility determinations or weigh any evidence but decide whether there are any disputed issues and whether they are material to the case.
In the context of a personal injury lawsuit, a defendant might move for summary judgment by arguing that the plaintiff cannot prove one of the elements required for their claim. For example, in a negligence claim, the plaintiff must prove duty, breach, causation, and damages. If the defendant can show that the plaintiff has no evidence to prove, say, causation, the defendant might succeed in a summary judgment motion.
On the other hand, a plaintiff might move for summary judgment by arguing that the defendant has no defense to the plaintiff’s claim.
Summary judgment is powerful, but it’s used sparingly. Judges are cautious about granting summary judgment because it denies the party’s right to a jury trial. But when it’s clear that a trial would merely involve going through the motions without any possibility of a different result, courts will use summary judgment to save time and resources.
How Is Summary Judgment Obtained?
Obtaining summary judgment in a lawsuit for negligence, as with other types of civil cases, is a process that involves several steps.
Here is the general procedure:
- Discovery: This is the phase of litigation where both parties gather all the facts and evidence related to the lawsuit. Both parties are able to request documents, ask written questions known as interrogatories, and depose witnesses under oath. The evidence collected during this phase is critical for supporting a motion for summary judgment.
- Motion for Summary Judgment: Once the discovery phase is largely complete, the party who believes that there are no material facts in dispute and that they’re entitled to judgment as a matter of law files a motion for summary judgment. This motion must be supported with a memorandum of law.
- This is where the party presents legal arguments supporting their position and may also include supporting evidence from the discovery process.
- Statement of Undisputed Facts: The moving party must also submit a Statement of Undisputed Facts, which lays out the material facts of the case that they believe are not in dispute. Each fact must be supported by a citation to the evidence in the record.
- Response by the Non-Moving Party: Once the motion for summary judgment and the statement of undisputed facts are filed, the non-moving party has an opportunity to respond. They can counter the motion by presenting evidence that shows there is indeed a dispute about a material fact, which would need to be resolved at trial.
- The non-moving party can also submit its own Statement of Disputed Facts, indicating which of the moving party’s stated facts are disputed and providing evidence to support their contention.
- Court’s Decision: The court then reviews all the documents, affidavits, depositions, and any other evidence submitted. The court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.
- If the judge determines that there are no genuine disputes of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, summary judgment will be granted.
In the context of a negligence lawsuit, obtaining a summary judgment can be particularly challenging, given the fact-intensive nature of such cases.
For example, if the defendant moves for summary judgment, they may argue that the plaintiff cannot prove one or more elements of negligence, such as:
- The defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff;
- The defendant breached that duty;
- The breach caused the plaintiff’s injuries;
- The plaintiff suffered damages as a result.
The defendant would have to provide evidence for each of these points. Conversely, the plaintiff can argue that there’s enough evidence to support each element of negligence and that the defendant’s defense is insufficient as a matter of law.
Summary judgment is a powerful tool in the litigation process, but it’s not easily granted. The courts are often cautious to ensure that no party is prematurely denied their right to a trial.
How Does Summary Judgment Help Citizens?
Summary judgment serves a number of important functions that can be beneficial to citizens, especially those involved in civil litigation:
- Cost and Time Savings: Trials are time-consuming and costly. Summary judgment can significantly reduce the costs associated with lengthy trials, including legal fees, court costs, and the expenses related to discovery. These savings can be particularly important for people who may not have the resources to endure a prolonged litigation process.
- Efficiency: By eliminating the need for a full trial when there are no material facts in dispute, summary judgment promotes judicial efficiency. This allows courts to direct their resources toward cases where a trial is necessary to resolve factual disputes.
- Reducing Emotional Stress: Litigation can be emotionally draining for the parties involved, especially when the case involves personal issues. Summary judgment can provide a quicker resolution and spare individuals the stress and uncertainty of a full trial.
- Finality: A summary judgment provides a definitive legal decision, giving parties a sense of closure without the need for a potentially lengthy and uncertain trial.
While the summary judgment process has many potential benefits, it’s also a complex legal procedure that requires a thorough understanding of the law and rules of civil procedure.
Should I Have an Attorney Draft My Motion for Summary Judgment?
This brings us to the question of whether you should have a lawyer draft your motion for summary judgment. The answer is a resounding yes.
- Understanding of Legal Standards: Attorneys have the necessary legal training to understand the standards that apply to summary judgment. They know how to identify whether there are no genuine issues of material fact and whether the party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
- Knowledge of Court Rules and Procedure: Different courts may have different rules and procedures for summary judgment motions. Attorneys will be familiar with these rules and ensure that your motion complies with them.
- Ability to Analyze Legal Issues: An attorney can analyze the law as it applies to the facts of your case and argue persuasively why summary judgment should be granted in your favor.
- Skill in Drafting Legal Documents: Legal writing is a skill. Attorneys know how to draft a persuasive motion that clearly presents your case and adheres to the formal requirements of legal documents.
If you need help with drafting a motion for summary judgment, use LegalMatch. With LegalMatch, you can quickly find a prescreened lawyer to help with your case. LegalMatch provides a reliable way to find the right lawyer for your needs, ensuring that you have the best chance possible to succeed in your legal matter.