What is a Summary Judgment Motion?

In some cases, the key facts are not disputed and require that judgment be entered for one of the parties. This is known as a summary judgment, in that it summarily ends the case before trial. The purpose of a trial is to have somebody -- the judge or the jury -- decide what the facts are. If the facts are not in dispute, there is no need for a trial. Instead the party who believes that the undisputed facts compel a ruling in his or her favor will file a motion for summary judgment. The motion asks the court to consider the undisputed facts and apply the law to them, and argues that the law requires a judgment for the party bringing the motion.

Summary judgment is described as "a blunt instrument" that can abruptly terminate the litigation. To avoid a summary judgment, the other party must provide the court with evidence that would be permitted at trial that indicates that the key facts are disputable. If the court agrees with the party opposing the motion and finds that the key facts are in dispute, the court cannot enter judgment and must instead send the case to trial.

While a summary judgment motion is not a substitute for trial, it is a tool that allows courts to weed out cases that do not need a trial to be resolved. It also allows the court to simplify and streamline the case so that trial is more efficient and focused on the areas of actual dispute.

When it decides a motion for summary judgment, the court may only consider facts in the pretrial record, such as deposition testimony, affidavits (sworn statements of fact) answers to written discovery requests, documents, and the like. It cannot decide which side is more credible than the other. If the court has concerns about the credibility of witnesses or which side to believe, the case should be resolved in a trial.

This motion is crucial to your case. If you are defending against the motion, hoping to go to trial or to settle the case, you will want to provide your lawyer with whatever assistance he or she needs in pulling the facts together. The most likely way you will be asked to help is to provide an affidavit setting forth facts that rebut the facts the moving party has relied on. Do not ignore calls from your lawyer when the motion is pending!

A party may also seek partial summary judgment, which is a request for a ruling on just a portion of the claim. For example, suppose you have a case in which liability is clear, such as when the defendant ran a red light and broad-sided the plaintiff proceeding on green, there is no reason ask a jury to decide if the defendant should be required to pay damages. However, the parties have completely different ideas over how much money the plaintiff should receive as damages. In that case, the court can order that judgment be entered on the question of liability and that the case will go to trial only to determine damages.

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