A motion for summary judgment, if granted, can bring a quick end to a civil case, including a personal injury lawsuit. In the sections that follow, we’ll explain how these motions work and how they can affect your case.
What Is a Motion for Summary Judgment?
A motion for summary judgment (sometimes called an “MSJ”) is a request for the court to rule that the other party has no case, because there are no facts at issue. The party making the motion is claiming that either the case should not go before a jury at all, or a jury could only rule in favor of the moving party.
In order to win an MSJ, the moving party must show that:
- there are no facts which can reasonably be disputed; or
- anyone looking at the facts and applying law would rule in favor of the moving party.
Although either plaintiff or defendant is allowed to make this kind of motion, in a personal injury case MSJs are most often brought by defendants. (Learn more about Parties in a Civil Lawsuit.)
In a personal injury case, for example, a defendant’s MSJ will usually argue that the defendant had no duty toward the plaintiff (the existence of a legal duty is a key element of “negligence,” which forms the basis of liability in most injury cases). An MSJ might also be based on lack of evidence, so that even if the defendant had a duty to the plaintiff, there is no proof that the duty was breached or that the breach caused the injury.
If an MSJ is granted, the case is closed with regard to the moving party.
Responding to a Motion for Summary Judgment
If you’re the plaintiff in a case where the defendant has filed an MSJ, to successfully oppose the motion, you will need to present the judge with evidence that a jury could use to find in your favor. This evidence could take the form of statements made in a deposition, police reports, medical records, witness affidavits, or other materials that you would use at trial.
If a defendant has brought the motion while there is still a significant amount of time before the trial date, you can also argue that there is still evidence yet to be gathered, so ruling on an MSJ would be premature. For example, if an important witness has not yet been deposed, you can argue that the deposition will provide facts to support your case.
Failure to respond to an MSJ -- or responding insufficiently -- will likely result in the case being resolved in the moving party’s favor.
The MSJ "Burden Shift"
It is not enough for the moving party to make assertions such as “Defendant had no duty,” without supporting evidence. In an MSJ, the “burden of proof” switches from the plaintiff to the defendant (assuming the defendant is the moving party). So, the defendant needs to show that the plaintiff cannot obtain any evidence supporting the claims. If there are uninterviewed witnesses or unproduced documents, the defendant has not proved the plaintiff can't make a case. For this reason, most MSJs are brought at late stages in the case.
Notice, Motion, and Opposition Filings
Like other motions, an MSJ must be assigned a hearing date, and notice must be properly given. The time frame is generally longer than it is for other motions, due to the complexity of the issues.
In addition to the notice, the party bringing the motion must file and serve a Memorandum of Points and Authorities, which is the legal basis for the motion, and present the evidence for its position. Failure to comply with the statutory requirements for notice is grounds for the judge to deny the motion without considering the contents.
In some state courts, the moving party must file and serve a Separate Statement of Undisputed Material Facts, which consists of a list of all the facts it is relying on, and the evidence supporting those facts. In these jurisdictions, the opposing party should respond to each of the moving party’s facts with evidence showing that the facts actually are in dispute and should be decided by a jury. The opposition should also include a Separate Statement of Disputed Material Facts.
Hearing and Judge’s Decision
Once the parties have filed their MSJ documents, the judge will consider the motion at the hearing date set out in the notice. After listening to arguments from both sides, the judge will issue a ruling either granting the motion for summary judgment -- which ends the case against the moving party -- or denying it, which allows the case to go forward, and on to trial if no settlement is reached.