An Introduction to Summary Judgment In North Carolina
What if there was a way to have certain issues, or even an entire case, decided without having to go through a long trial? “Summary judgment” is a procedural device that offers just that. Summary judgment is a way for the court to dispose of claims that the plaintiff (the party bringing the lawsuit) cannot prove or that the defendant (the party against whom the lawsuit was filed) cannot contradict. Essentially, the party seeking judgment on the case itself or on an issue within that case can, after service of a motion for summary judgment, move for a judgment in his favor prior to trial.
Because a trial is used to resolve any factual disputes between the parties to a lawsuit, summary judgment is appropriate when there is no variance between the parties’ version of the facts at issue. It also allows the parties to avoid the time, labor, and expense of going through discovery and trial when the outcome is clear.
A judge may grant a motion for summary judgment when the pleadings, discovery, and any relevant affidavits demonstrate that there is “no genuine issue as to any material fact” and the aggrieved party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Additionally, when considering a motion for summary judgment, the evidence should be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.
Of course, the party opposing the motion for summary judgment may also respond by asserting why there are genuine issues of fact. The opposing party need not even prove that they are right, they simply must show that there is a material difference in fact. If it is not clear whether or not there are any genuine issues, then summary judgment should be denied and the case should proceed. This is a high burden that is placed on the party moving for summary judgment and, as such, it is difficult to succeed on.
Because many civil lawsuits rely on the theory of negligence as their cause of action, North Carolina’s use of the “contributory negligence” doctrine further complicates the use of summary judgment in this state. As discussed in a prior blog post, “contributory negligence” is a legal doctrine that states that a plaintiff will be unable to recover damages from the defendant if the plaintiff’s own negligence contributed to his injuries in any way. Contributory negligence may be established upon a showing by the defendant of: (1) a lack of ordinary care on the part of the plaintiff and (2) a proximate connection between the plaintiff’s negligence and his injury. Therefore, in order for contributory negligence to bar a claim, the plaintiff’s own negligence must have had a hand in causing his injuries and that negligence cannot be unrelated to the injuries he sustained.
However, North Carolina courts have repeatedly stated that issues of contributory negligence are rarely appropriate for summary judgment. A court will only grant motions for summary judgment when the evidence is uncontroverted that a party failed to use ordinary care and that a lack of ordinary care was the proximate cause of the injury complained of. That is exceedingly difficult to prove without a full trial. Rather, courts prefer to allow a jury to decide whether a reasonable person would or would not have undertaken the action in question.
Furthermore, courts have held that summary judgment will not be granted in cases where the evidence merely “tends to support the [non-moving party’s] claim” but is not the “only reasonable inference that may be drawn from the facts of the case.” In fact, if “the evidence raises only a mere conjecture of contributory negligence” then the issue is not appropriate for summary judgment. Accordingly, summary judgment provides a very high bar in contributory negligence matters.