Day in Court: Summary Judgment V. Trial

The Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, art. 15, guarantees the right to a jury trial in certain types of civil cases, and even goes so far as to state that “this method of procedure shall be held sacred.” Many people involved in litigation even look forward to their “day in court” when they will be able to present their case to a fair and impartial jury and obtain justice. The right to a jury trial, however, may be waived, for example by contract or by the failure to make a timely demand, and in reality a jury trial is rare.

According to Massachusetts Trial Court statistics, in Fiscal Year 2013 there were 21,647 civil cases filed in the Superior Court, where 26,338 cases were already pending. Of the 22,288 cases disposed of that year, only 307 were by jury verdict. Therefore, in Massachusetts less than 2% of civil cases actually reach a jury which is consistent with the national average. The remaining cases are either settled or disposed of through alternate means, including motions to dismiss or for summary judgment.

Under the procedure for summary judgment, a trial judge can decide a case or narrow the issues in a case based on the written submissions of the parties if there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. When considering a motion for summary judgment, a judge considers “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any.” A judge usually also holds a hearing for oral argument. When deciding a motion for summary judgment, the judge does not consider the credibility of witnesses or the weight of the evidence, nor does the judge make findings of fact.

A party moving for summary judgment must demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact on every relevant issue, even if that party would have no burden on the issue if the case were to go to trial. Alternately, a party moving for summary judgment in a case in which the opposing party has the burden of proof at trial is entitled to summary judgment if he demonstrates that the party opposing the motion has no reasonable expectation of proving an essential element of that party’s case. The party opposing the motion must respond by alleging specific facts which establish the existence of a dispute of material fact in order to defeat the motion. In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court draws all inferences from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Conflicts in the summary judgment materials and all logically permissible inferences are made in the motion opponent’s favor.

Summary judgment is rarely granted in negligence actions because of the jury’s unique competence in applying the reasonable person standard to a given fact situation. However, cases that turn on questions of law, such as the existence of duty of care in circumstances where the facts are undisputed, or the interpretation of unambiguous contract language, are particularly subject to disposition by summary judgment. If summary judgment is allowed, judgment is entered and a party can appeal the ruling. Following a denial of summary judgment, a case continues to proceed to trial.