What is Summary Judgment?
Understanding motions for summary judgment…and how to win them
If you sued a defendant for your injuries or other damages, then you can expect certain legal responses and defenses. While every case is unique, some stages of litigation come up in nearly every lawsuit. Summary judgment is one of those phases. Understanding what summary judgment is and how handle it is key to winning big in your case. As a result, our experienced trial lawyers define summary judgment and provide a guide to using this legal step to maximize your compensation payout.
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Motions for summary judgment: what they are and what do they do
In order to fully grasp motions for summary judgment, you must have a basic understanding of how lawsuits work. This will help contextualize motions for summary judgment. When a victim suffers some harm–for example, an injury from a car or truck accident–he or she file claims against the responsible party. This can be either a person, a company, or both. There can be multiple victims suing. There also can be multiple people or businesses being sued. Regardless, those claims make up the “lawsuit.” Relatedly, the victim/person who files the lawsuit is called the “plaintiff.” The person or company that the victim sued is the “defendant.”
It should not surprise you that the defendant’s goal is almost always to get out of the case. Consequently, there are a number of legal strategies that the defendant can use to try and get the judge to throw it away. Summary judgment motions are one of those strategies.
Function and form of a summary judgment form
Motions for summary judgment have a very specific goal and make a very specific argument to get there. If the party filing the motion (in legal terms, this party is called the “movant”) wins, the judge will throw out the case (or at least the claim or part of the claim that the motion addressed). If the movant loses, the other side does not win the whole lawsuit. Instead, the case simply continues on towards trial.
The movant argues two things. Firstly, the motion argues that the plaintiff and the defendant do not dispute ANY of the material facts in the case. Secondly, the motion argues that the movant wins under the law.
What is a material fact and how do you spot it?
Not all facts are material facts. A material fact is a fact that has legal significance.
For example, consider a car crash case where the plaintiff alleges that the defendant’s speeding in excess of posted speed limits caused the accident. In such an instance, the defendant’s speed is a material fact because legally speaking, a defendant who breaks the law and causes harm as a result can be held liable for the damage they cause. Consequently, if the plaintiff argues that before the accident, the defendant was going 75 miles per hour (MPH) in a 45 and the defendant presents evidence that he or she was driving under 45 MPH, there is a disputed material fact. As a result, the judge should deny summary judgment.
In contrast, consider a fact like whether a traffic light was yellow or green when the defendant drove through it. The parties may disagree about this fact. However, if the plaintiff’s case alleges that the speeding was the sole cause of the accident, the color of the light when the defendant drove through it will not have an impact on who should win under the law. Thus, it is not a material fact. As a result, if this is the only fact in dispute, the judge should grant the motion for summary judgment.
Who files the motion for summary judgment?
Many motions, pleadings, and court documents may only be filed by one kind of party. For example, only a plaintiff can file a complaint. Only defendants file motions to dismiss. In contrast, either party can file a motion for summary judgment.
The anatomy of a civil lawsuit
While different states’ laws vary and every case is different, this is the typical timeline and structure of a civil lawsuit. (Remember, the parties may be trying to negotiating a settlement behind the scenes throughout. The case may settle at any point).
The plaintiff’s complaint
Plaintiff files a complaint. The complaint initiates the lawsuit. It also loosely describes the plaintiff’s version of the facts of the incident. Likewise, the complaint also contains statements of law. The plaintiff must be specific about the facts and the reasons that he or she should win under the law.
The defendant’s response
Defendant files a response. Depending on the jurisdiction and the defendant’s strategy, the defendant may have a few choices about how to respond. The most common responses are answers and motions to dismiss. Answers address the facts and law in the plaintiff’s complaint. A defendant will agree with or dispute each fact and piece of law directly, sentence-by-sentence. In contrast, motions to dismiss urge the court to dispose of the case entirely. In essence, a motion to dismiss argues that even if the plaintiff’s story was true, the plaintiff would still lose their case under the law.
Conferences and discovery. Most of the time, judges deny defendants’ motions to dismiss. This does not mean that the plaintiff wins. Rather, this simply allows the case to continue on to the next phase. The parties will meet with each other and sometimes together with the judge to set a schedule for the lawsuit. The discovery phase will be the first thing on the schedule. Discovery is the process by which each side obtains information relevant to the case. Parties conduct discovery by taking formal depositions, serving interrogatories, and collecting documents and other physical evidence.
Summary judgment and response
Motion for summary judgment. In most jurisdictions, summary judgment motions can be filed at various points in a lawsuit. In many, parties may even file more than one (though from a strategic perspective, this may not be a good idea). However, motions for summary judgment typically arise towards the end of the discovery phase, before trial. As a reminder, the discovery phase is when parties gather most of the factual evidence for their claims and defenses. Thus, it makes sense that motions for summary judgment usually occur at the end of this phase. The party opposing summary judgment will always have a chance to respond and argue that the case should not be thrown out.
Pretrial motions. If the judge denies summary judgment, the case continues on. As a result, parties must file various motions to hash out what the trial will look like. Examples of pre-trial motions include those concerning expert witnesses, admissible testimony, physical evidence, jurors, and more.
Most cases settle at some point in this timeline before trial. In fact, less than 3% of civil lawsuits actually go to trial.
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If you have further questions about summary judgment motions or want to discuss the details of your lawsuit, Munley Law is here to help. Our experienced lawyers try–and, more importantly, WIN– cases all across the United States. Who you choose to represent you matters. See the difference a Munley Law litigator makes. Call, text, message, or chat us to schedule your FREE consultation today.
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