Understanding Motions for Summary Judgment

One of the most important phases a of a personal injury lawsuit, or any lawsuit for that matter, is the motion for summary judgment. In this post we explain what a motion for summary judgment is and why the summary judgment stage of a lawsuit is critically important to the ultimate outcome of a lawsuit.

Rule 56 Motions for Summary Judgment

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 defines the motion for summary judgment as follows: “A party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense — or the part of each claim or defense — on which summary judgment is sought. The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”

In plain English, this means that if there is no dispute about the underlying facts of the lawsuit, then the Court will enter a judgment as a matter of law. Importantly, this means that the case will not go to a jury trial on whatever issue the Court grants summary judgment.

In a simple illustration, consider a motor vehicle accident case where the defendant admits that he ran a red light and caused the accident. In that case, the plaintiff could file a motion for summary judgment on the issue of liability and the Court would grant it. That would mean the case would not go to the jury on the question of the defendant’s liability.

Summary judgment is only appropriate where “there is no genuine issue of material fact,” so if the parties disagree about the underlying facts of what happened–more precisely, if reasonable potential jurors could disagree–then summary judgment is not likely to be granted.

Summary Judgment in Practice as a Defense Tactic

Typically, the defense will file a motion for summary judgment as a tactic to get the entire lawsuit thrown out of court. The defense motion for summary judgment can take many forms. For example, in a medical malpractice lawsuit, the defense may file for summary judgment on the question of liability, arguing that no reasonable jury could find the defendant was negligent. In a civil rights lawsuit, the defense may file for summary judgment on the question of qualified immunity. This sort of motion is especially typical in police misconduct cases. For example, a police defendant may argue that his use of force under the circumstances was reasonable, and therefore he should be entitled to qualified immunity. These motions are a way to get the “case thrown out of court” before trial.

Summary Judgment and Case Settlement

Summary judgment provides a good opportunity to settle your lawsuit. If summary judgment is denied, then the case will move forward to trial and the costs of litigation to both sides will likely increase substantially. If summary judgment is granted, then the entire case may be thrown out. For that reason, it is not uncommon for cases to settle while summary judgment motions are pending before the Court. This is because there is a maximum of uncertainty to both sides while summary judgment motions are pending. Another typical scenario is that a defendant will file a motion for summary judgment and wait for the Court to rule before engaging seriously in settlement discussions. If the Court denies the motion, then the defendant may decide to settle the case, knowing that the case will now proceed to trial with potential exposure to a large jury verdict.

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