Personal Injury

What is a Summary Judgment Motion in a Personal Injury Case?

By Carol DiBari, Attorney
A summary judgment motion is a crucial procedural moment in any personal injury case. Here's what to expect.

No matter which side of a personal injury lawsuit you are on, a motion for summary judgment is a key point in the life of the case. If the motion is granted, it could let the defendant off the liability hook, spelling the end of the plaintiff's case. If the motion is denied, the case lives on, and the odds of a settlement likely increase. Read on to learn more.

What is a Motion for Summary Judgment?

A "motion" is a request your lawyer files with the court, asking for a ruling on a particular matter. In a personal injury case, a motion for summary judgment (or MSJ) can be brought in an attempt to resolve key issues -- such as liability and damages -- before the case goes to trial. Issues decided by summary judgment motion are not put before the judge or jury at trial. Summary judgment motions can also be used to resolve the entire case (not just specific issues) prior to trial.

Burden of the Moving Party

A motion for summary judgment may be made by a plaintiff or defendant. The moving party has the burden to show that there are “no genuine issues of material fact” at issue. Under this legal standard, in order for the motion to be successful, the moving party must prove that the facts are undisputed and that the issue (or the entire case) does not need to go before a judge or jury, since the only plausible outcome based on the facts and the law is to rule in favor of the moving party.

The moving party can meet their burden by using all of the information they have obtained while preparing their case, such as police reports, witness statements, deposition testimony, expert affidavits, sworn medical reports, and other evidence produced during the course of the discovery (or information-gathering) phase of the case.

Opposition and Reply

In order to oppose a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party can rely on the same types of evidence as the moving party in order to demonstrate that issues of fact do exist and that a jury could find in favor of the non-moving party. If there is still discovery outstanding, i.e. the deposition of a key witness, the opposing party can argue that the summary motion judgment is premature, since the outstanding deposition testimony may provide facts that will support the opposing party's case and be sufficient to defeat the motion.

But keep in mind that the failure to respond to or sufficiently oppose a motion for summary judgment will likely result in the motion being granted in favor of the moving party.

Once opposition has been filed in response to the MSJ, the moving party has the chance to submit a reply to the opposition. This is the moving party’s opportunity to refute the opposition and reassert the reasons why summary judgment should be granted in their favor.

Hearing and Decision

When the motion, opposition and reply papers have all been properly filed, the court will usually schedule a hearing for the motion to be argued before the judge.

If the judge finds that there is a material issue of fact that is disputed by both sides, then the judge will deny the motion for summary judgment, and the case will continue to trial.

If the judge determines that there no genuine issue of fact exists, then he or she will grant the motion for summary judgment, which could end the case (at least against the moving party). However, even if the motion is granted, the non-moving party may file an appeal with a higher court and seek reversal of the judge’s decision, though reversals are rarely granted.

Talk to Your Attorney

A summary judgment motion -- or the opposition to an MSJ -- can make or break your personal injury case, so it's not something you want to tackle on your own. Your attorney is in the best position to determine the proper course of action for your case, and will proceed with the skill and expertise necessary to ensure the best outcome.

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