Winning Before Trial: Summary Judgment

The vast majority of civil cases do not go to trial.  Many are settled.  Some cases are dismissed by the court for procedural reasons.  Some cases are resolved prior to trial following a motion for summary judgment.

Both the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide a mechanism whereby either party (plaintiff or defendant) can file a motion for summary judgment if the depositions, admissions on file and other discovery materials demonstrate that there are no remaining disputed factual issues and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  If the record in the case developed prior to trial shows convincingly that one party is entitled to judgment and the other party has no defense, judgment will be entered summarily in favor of that party unless the opposing party can demonstrate that a factual dispute requiring a trial still remains.  A motion for summary judgment is designed to bring a case to an end where there is no real factual dispute, leaving the court to apply the law to the undisputed facts.

Summary judgment is most useful in business and commercial cases, especially cases involving defaulted loans, contract disputes and similar matters.  If a borrower admits in a sworn deposition that he signed the bank’s loan agreement, stopped making payments on the loan, and offers as his defense the fact that he lost his job, summary judgment in favor of the bank would be appropriate.  (Losing your job is not a legal defense to failure to pay a debt.)

Summary judgment is not appropriate in cases involving significant factual disputes.  For example, if an eyewitness says an injured cyclist actually veered out in front of a car, only a trial to determine the facts will resolve the dispute over who is negligent.  Credibility, ability to observe, and recollection are all factors only a judge or jury can evaluate.  Summary judgment cannot resolve basic factual disputes.

In the end, summary judgment provides a convenient and straightforward mechanism for courts to dispose of cases where there remains no real factual dispute.  If the parties are in relative agreement on the facts, the court will apply the law, decide the case and enter judgment for the proper party — without a lengthy and expensive trial.

— Kevin Palmer


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