What Happens at a Summary Judgment Hearing?

By Beverly Bird
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Summary judgment can dismiss certain portions of a legal civil suit, dismiss the entire suit or rule that the matter move forward to trial. It’s an option often used by litigants to avoid a costly trial because they believe no factual issues are in dispute. Either the plaintiff or the defendant in a case can make a motion asking for summary judgment. The judge might rule that there are no issues for the court to decide and can terminate the litigation. Or he may rule that the case has merit and there are many issues in dispute. The case would then proceed to trial.

An Example of Summary Judgment

If a plaintiff is suing a hotel because he tripped on the stairs and broke his arm, he would have to prove in the lawsuit that something was fundamentally wrong with the stairs to cause him to trip. He would have to prove that the hotel was negligent. If the stairs were in perfect repair and he tripped on his own shoelaces, the hotel might move for summary judgment based on the assertion that the plaintiff really has no case.

Who Can Request One

To achieve summary judgment, you or your attorney must file a motion with the court, asking for it. Your adversary can also file for summary judgment if she feels there is nothing for a court or jury to decide in a trial. Even a judge can order a summary judgment hearing if she feels the case doesn’t warrant a trial because the facts cannot be disputed.

What Is Considered

Before a summary judgment hearing, both sides must argue their cases in writing, in documents explaining the facts and submitted to the judge. The movant, or the party who filed the motion, files an initial notice of motion, asking for summary judgment. The other side then gets to file an affidavit, arguing why the judge should not grant summary judgment. All the evidence that would normally be admissible at a trial is also admissible in a summary judgment motion. In our example, evidence could include a safety inspection report stating that the stairs were well maintained or the statement of a witness who noticed the plaintiff’s untied shoelace.

What Happens at the Hearing

At the hearing itself, both sides or their attorneys argue their cases orally to the judge. Though state laws vary, most states will not allow litigants to introduce new issues at the hearing. For instance, the hotel owner cannot suddenly produce the shoelace witness if he failed to mention that person in any of the evidence he provided in writing before the hearing. After hearing all the arguments, the judge decides whether the case warrants a trial. He might rule that some parts of the case should proceed but dismiss other parts. He might decide that the hotel owner really was at fault, so liability does not require litigation. The matter would go to trial, but the only thing that would be at issue is what monetary damages the hotel owner must pay the plaintiff for his injuries.

Drawbacks

Any part of a case that is decided by summary judgment is final. It essentially closes the book on any aspects that the judge has ruled on. If you are considering asking for summary judgment in a legal matter, or if someone has asked for summary judgment against you, you should consult with an attorney because the judge’s decision is binding and you could have a lot to lose.