What is a Summary Judgment?

What’s a motion for summary judgment?

Learn the ins and outs of a motion for summary judgment

One of the most significant motions is a motion for summary judgment (sometimes simply called an “MSJ”). If granted, an MSJ can end a civil case. Because of its potential impact on a case, it’s important that you understand how this type of motion works.

In the legal world, a “motion” is a written request asking the court to make some sort of decision related to a case. For example, a motion might ask the court to prohibit a piece of evidence from being considered at trial or it might request that the court move the case to another venue.

What’s a motion for summary judgment?

Lawsuits generally go to trial because the parties disagree about the facts of a case. But what if the important facts of a case aren’t disputed?

A motion for summary judgment is a request made by a party asking the court to decide all or part of a lawsuit without going to trial because there’s no dispute about the key facts of the case.

The party making the motion (called the “movant”) can be the plaintiff or the defendant. Either way, the movant must prove two things to be successful:

  • That there are no material facts that can be reasonably disputed, and
  • In light of the undisputed facts, the movant is entitled to judgment under the applicable law.

Examples of summary judgement motions

For non-lawyers, this can all be a little confusing. So, let’s take a look at an example:

John and Linda are in a car accident. John says that Linda ran a red light and caused the crash. John happens to have a video of Linda running the red light and crashing into him. John’s attorney files a motion for summary judgment claiming that:

  1. There are no material facts that can be reasonably disputed. In other words, Linda can’t produce any evidence that raises any doubt that she ran the red light and caused the accident. 
  2. In light of the undisputed facts, John is entitled to judgment under the applicable law. In other words, because Linda ran the red light and caused the accident, she’s liable under the law of negligence

 

Based on the above example, a judge would likely grant John’s motion for summary judgment. As a result, there would be no need to litigate the issue of liability. Keep in mind that the parties might still need to litigate the issue of damages (i.e., the amount of money Linda owes John).

Now let’s take a look at the same example with a slightly different twist:

John and Linda are in a car accident. John argues that Linda ran a red light and caused the accident, but John doesn’t have a video. He does have a statement from a witness who says they saw Linda run the red light. John’s attorney files a motion for summary judgment.

Linda’s attorney responds to the motion by producing a statement from a different witness saying that the witness saw Linda stop at the red light.

In the above example, the judge would likely deny John’s motion for summary judgment because there’s a disputed material fact (whether Linda ran the red light and caused the accident). The case would therefore proceed to trial as normal.

How does a motion for summary judgment get started?

The movant must file their motion for summary judgment with the court by a specific date. Depending on the state, this deadline is set forth in the case scheduling order (an order signed by the court listing various deadlines) or the local rules of civil procedure.  

What does the motion for summary judgment actually look like?

A motion for summary judgment consists of 2 parts:

  • The motion (a written request for the court to rule in the movant’s favor)
  • The memorandum in support of the motion (a memo explaining why the court should rule in the movan’t favor).
Enjuris tip: You can view a sample motion for summary judgment that was filed in federal court here.

How does a party respond to a motion for summary judgment?

The non-moving party always has an opportunity to respond to the motion for summary judgment. This is called a “response” or an “opposition motion.”

The non-moving party only has a certain amount of time to file a response. This amount of time varies by state, but is usually around 21 days.

Like the original motion, the non-moving party’s response typically consists of two parts:

  • The motion (a written request for the court to rule in the non-moving party’s favor)
  • The memorandum (a memo explaining why the court should rule in the non-moving party’s favor)
Enjuris tip: You can view a sample response to a motion for summary judgment that was filed in federal court here.

In responding to a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must do 1 of 2 things:

  • Show that there’s a disputed fact (this can be done by producing evidence), or
  • Accept that there are no disputed facts, but dispute the movant’s recitation of the law.

If the non-moving party doesn’t believe they’ve had enough time to uncover the facts of the case, the party can ask the court for a “continuance” to permit additional discovery. The court has a great deal of discretion in determining whether to grant such a request.

What happens during a motion for summary judgment hearing?

Once the motion and response has been filed, the judge will read both and then preside over a hearing. 

At the hearing, each party will be given a certain amount of time to reiterate their argument in front of the judge. The judge may ask some questions and at the end of the hearing the judge will grant or deny the motion. Sometimes the judge will require additional time to make a decision and the parties will be notified days or weeks later.

A hearing on a motion for summary judgment doesn’t involve oral testimony. Because of this, some lawyers don’t bother taking their clients to the hearing. Other lawyers like to take their clients. The decision usually depends on the lawyer, the client, and the nature of the case.

A motion for summary judgment can be a very effective tool when used properly. But, it also requires a lot of time and money in order to draft the documents and participate in the hearing. An experienced attorney will be able to tell you if a motion for summary judgment is appropriate in your case.

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