The defendant in my lawsuit has filed a motion for summary judgment. What does that mean? Even though our constitution guarantees the right to trial by jury, the law permits a defendant to file a motion that argues the question of whether there is at least some evidence that supports the injured person’s claims. There are differing standards among the states, but frequently, the question is whether there is “substantial evidence” in support of the claim. Sometimes the question is whether there is “substantial evidence” in opposition to a defense, such as the statute of limitations.
Here is a simple example of how a motion for summary judgment works – say a store customer is hurt by a store’s negligence. If, however, the store proved through its employee’s testimony or affidavit that the accident happened more than two years before the customer filed suit, then the store might get a summary judgment order dismissing the case, if the accident occurred in a state like Alabama, where the statute of limitations for such cases is 2 years. If the evidence remains undisputed that the store is correct about the date, then it would win its motion for summary judgment, and the judge would be required to dismiss the case. If, however, the customer proved or provided evidence through his own affidavit or testimony that the accident occurred less than 2 years before suit was filed, then the motion should be denied, and a jury would later listen to both sides and decide who is right.
The losing party on the motion for summary judgment would have a right to appeal this decision, although, if the judge denies the motion and says a trial will be held, it may be necessary that the store wait until the trial is over and a verdict is reached by the jury before it can be appealed. On appeal, the appeals court would review the trial judge’s decision on the legal question of whether the evidence was sufficiently in dispute to make it necessary that a jury decide the question. If a trial judge had ruled for the customer, and dismissed the case, and the customer later won his appeal, then the case would be sent back down or “remanded” for a trial.
A Cum Laude Honors graduate of Cumberland School of Law, Alabama tort law expert Mike Roberts has successfully litigated cases covering civil litigation, personal injury, negligence, product liability, wrongful death and fraud. He is the author of six editions of Alabama Tort Law, and is licensed to practice law before the United States Supreme Court.