June 5, 2014
Summary Judgment allows a judge to decide that a party should win or lose on one or more claims in a civil litigation before trial.
Both federal and state courts allow parties to move for summary judgment. In the federal court system the relevant rule is Rule 56.
Although a party can move for summary judgment at any time before trial, usually parties ask for summary judgment after discovery because after discovery all of the evidence has been shared.
To win on summary judgment a party must show that there is no dispute over any relevant material (material = important) fact and that the party must win according to the law. A simple way to think about summary judgment is that a party is arguing that we don't need a jury because that party has to win. For example, if A alleges that B drove a car negligently and the evidence indisputably shows that B was not driving the car, B is entitled to summary judgment. We don't need a trial and the judge should end the case.
Another way to think about summary judgment is that it acts as a balance against easy pleading requirements. Keep in mind that pleading requirements in the United States are usually lax - - it is easy to start a case. Summary judgment allows a defendant to eliminate a meritless case before trial.
Both plaintiffs and defendants can move a court for summary judgment. If the court grants summary judgment the party wins on one or all claims. If the court denies summary judgment, the case should proceed to trial on that claim. For example, let's say party A sues party B for breach of contract and battery. Party B moves for summary judgment on both claims. The court denies the motion on the contract claim but grants the motion on the tort claim. The contract claim should go to trial.
Here is a short video on summary judgment: