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.