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What does 'summary judgment' mean in a civil lawsuit?


When reading news articles about civil lawsuits (as opposed to criminal cases), the term “summary judgment” is often used. Naturally, most people without a legal background might not know what this means. Today, we’ll explain summary judgment and how it is used in civil lawsuits.

When one side files a motion for summary judgment, they are essentially arguing that the case does not need to go to trial for two reasons. The first argument is that there is no genuine disagreement about the facts of the case. In legal speak, you’ll often hear that there are “no genuine issues of material fact.” The second argument cites a law or laws that would automatically allow one side to win based on the undisputed facts.

A motion for summary judgment can be filed by either the plaintiff or the defendant prior to trial. If a judge grants summary judgment to the side that filed the motion, the case is decided immediately and therefore won’t go to trial. If the judge grants partial summary judgment, the case will go to trial but with the specific issue at hand omitted.

The party that did not file the motion can present their own evidence to convince the judge to deny summary judgment. If the motion is denied, the case will then go to trial as originally planned. Typically, if the arguments present a “close call” as to whether or not to grant summary judgment, judges will deny the motion and send the case to trial to be decided by a jury.

Hopefully, this brief explanation helps readers understand summary judgment and how it can impact the course of a civil lawsuit.