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What is a Summary Judgment?

In a civil case (as opposed to a criminal case), a court may enter a summary judgment when the undisputed facts show that there is no genuine issue of any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The party seeking summary judgment files a motion that states the reasons she should win. The opposing party responds with evidence and legal reasons stating why the motion should be denied.

In state court in Texas, there are two kinds of summary judgments. One is a “traditional” summary judgment, where the moving party attaches evidence to the motion. The evidence can be affidavits, deposition testimony, documents, pictures, and anything else that is relevant. The second type is a “no-evidence” motion, where the movant says the opponent has no evidence on one or more essential elements (things he must prove), therefore, the court should rule for the movant.

Here’s an illustration. Paul Plaintiff sues Donna Defendant for whiplash caused when she ran a red light. Donna’s lawyer files a motion for summary judgment and attaches affidavits from three eyewitnesses who say that she had the green light. If Paul doesn’t file a response with some evidence to rebut Donna’s witnesses, the judge will rule that there is no genuine issue of a material fact and grant judgment that Paul gets nothing. But if Paul files a response with some evidence – e.g., his own affidavit – saying he had the green light, the judge has to deny the motion for summary judgment. In effect, there is an issue of fact for the “trier of fact” to decide.

Donna could also file a no-evidence motion, where she would say that Paul Plaintiff must prove three things: 1) Donna was negligent, 2) her negligence proximately caused the wreck, and 3) Paul was injured. She then alleges that there is no evidence that she was negligent. Paul must file a response with some evidence that Donna was negligent, or the judge will dismiss his case and he gets nothing.

Donna could also move for summary judgment on the grounds that the statute of limitations has run for filing suit. If the wreck was on August 30, 2010 and Paul Plaintiff filed his petition on August 31, 2012 (and that wasn’t a Saturday, Sunday or official holiday), he was a day late and his lawsuit will be dismissed.

Paul could also file his own motion for summary judgment that Donna’s negligence proximately caused the wreck.

The judge decides the motion based only on the written record – the motion, response, affidavits and other evidence attached to them, and the pleadings on file. No testimony is heard, and most judges don’t even have the hearing recorded. The parties (plaintiff and defendant) are not required to appear for the hearing. In the bigger cities, some judges rule on “submission” of the written record, without an oral hearing.

I’ve had clients who think the hearing on the motion for summary judgment is the trial. It is not. if the judge grants a motion for summary judgment, there will be no trial. If she denies it, then the case proceeds toward a trial, either by the judge or a jury.

For more information, contact the Law Office of Richard Ellison, P.C. for a free initial consultation.