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A Quick Guide: Motions That Can Decide Your Case Before Trial

A Quick Guide: Motions That Can Decide Your Case Before Trial

Pretrial motions resolve many important questions about your lawsuit. A motion is a request your lawyer files with the court asking for a ruling on a particular matter. If the ruling on the motion could terminate the litigation before trial, it is a dispositive motion. If the ruling is on some incidental question that arises during the litigation, it is a nondispositive motion. The information below is intended to give you a basic idea of the motions that could terminate the litigation and how they work.

Motion to Dismiss

A motion to dismiss is sometimes filed in the very early stages of the litigation, before the parties have conducted discovery. The material presented in the complaint and any exhibits to the complaint are the focus of the motion. The motion is brought when the defendant believes that the complaint is legally deficient in some way. In deciding a motion to dismiss, the Court must view the facts set forth in the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. The motion to dismiss is usually based on the following legal deficiencies:

  1. Lack of subject matter jurisdiction, meaning that the court doesn't have the power to rule on the controversy. For example, state law may require a special court to determine certain matters, such as requiring that a probate court, rather than a general civil court, decide a complaint involving the interpretation of a will.

  2. Lack of personal jurisdiction. This means that the court does not have power to make decisions affecting the defendant personally. The court lacks jurisdiction over you if you do not have sufficient minimum contacts with the place where the lawsuit has been filed. For example, if you were involved in an automobile accident at Yellowstone National Park, but you live in Florida and you're being sued in Vermont, you would have a good reason to argue that the Vermont court doesn't have jurisdiction over you.

  3. Improper venue. "Venue" refers to the particular location of the court. States have statutes setting forth the places within the state where you can be sued. If you are not sued in one of those places, the site of the lawsuit is inappropriate. A venue may be legally improper even if the court has personal jurisdiction over you. A frequent solution to this problem is not to dismiss the case, but to order that it be transferred to the proper venue.

  4. Insufficiency of process or insufficient service of process. A case may be dismissed if there is a technical defect in the summons (which is rare), or if you were not properly served with the summons and complaint (which is common). Service may be improper for a number of reasons, so be sure to tell your lawyer about how you were served and any odd circumstances so your lawyer can determine whether it could lead to the case being dismissed.

  5. Failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. In some cases, your lawyer may conclude that the facts set forth in the complaint do not state a legal claim for relief. For example, the complaint may allege that you did some negligent act that injured the plaintiff. The law may provide that you don't have any responsibility to look out for the plaintiff under the circumstances described in the complaint. If you don't have a legal responsibility, you cannot be held liable for the plaintiff's injuries. Another example is that the transaction or occurrence described in the complaint happened too long ago for the court to grant the plaintiff any relief. How long is "too long" will depend on the nature of the claim and your state's statute of limitations, which sets forth rules to determine when the window to file a claim has expired.

  6. Failure to join a necessary party. Sometimes the plaintiff doesn't sue the right people, or sues only some of them. When a transaction or occurrence involves multiple parties, they should all be made part of the lawsuit. While a court may dismiss the action, the more usual thing courts do is to tell the plaintiff to bring in the other people involved and make them plaintiffs or defendants.

Note: If the motion will bring up facts obtained through pretrial discovery rather than focusing solely on the allegations in the complaint, the court will probably convert the motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment, which is described in the next section.

Summary Judgment Motion

In some cases, the key facts are not disputed and require that judgment be entered for one of the parties. This is known as a summary judgment, in that it summarily ends the case before trial. The purpose of a trial is to have somebody -- the judge or the jury -- decide what the facts are. If the facts are not in dispute, there is no need for a trial. Instead the party who believes that the undisputed facts compel a ruling in his or her favor will file a motion for summary judgment. The motion asks the court to consider the undisputed facts and apply the law to them, and argues that the law requires a judgment for the party bringing the motion.

Summary judgment is described as "a blunt instrument" that can abruptly terminate the litigation. To avoid a summary judgment, the other party must provide the court with evidence that would be permitted at trial that indicates that the key facts are disputable. If the court agrees with the party opposing the motion and finds that the key facts are in dispute, the court cannot enter judgment and must instead send the case to trial.

While a summary judgment motion is not a substitute for trial, it is a tool that allows courts to weed out cases that do not need a trial to be resolved. It also allows the court to simplify and streamline the case so that trial is more efficient and focused on the areas of actual dispute.

When it decides a motion for summary judgment, the court may only consider facts in the pretrial record, such as deposition testimony, affidavits (sworn statements of fact) answers to written discovery requests, documents, and the like. It cannot decide which side is more credible than the other. If the court has concerns about the credibility of witnesses or which side to believe, the case should be resolved in a trial.

This motion is crucial to your case. If you are defending against the motion, hoping to go to trial or to settle the case, you will want to provide your lawyer with whatever assistance he or she needs in pulling the facts together. The most likely way you will be asked to help is to provide an affidavit setting forth facts that rebut the facts the moving party has relied on. Do not ignore calls from your lawyer when the motion is pending!

A party may also seek partial summary judgment, which is a request for a ruling on just a portion of the claim. For example, suppose you have a case in which liability is clear, such as when the defendant ran a red light and broad-sided the plaintiff proceeding on green, there is no reason ask a jury to decide if the defendant should be required to pay damages. However, the parties have completely different ideas over how much money the plaintiff should receive as damages. In that case, the court can order that judgment be entered on the question of liability and that the case will go to trial only to determine damages.

Motion for Default Judgment

When the defendant fails to answer the complaint or file a motion to dismiss within the time limit set forth in the summons, the defendant is in default. When a defendant is in default, the plaintiff can ask the court clerk to make a note of that fact in the file, a procedure called entry of default. Entry of default is serious: it means that because the defendant has failed to appear, he or she will not be permitted to contest whether he or she is liable to the plaintiff. Instead, the only question in dispute is how much the plaintiff should receive in damages. The court will send the defendant a notice stating that default has been entered against him or her.

If you are in default and act promptly and have an adequate excuse, you may be able to convince the court to vacate (undo) the entry of default from the file. Courts very much prefer that cases be decided on the merits, which often influences them to grant a motion to vacate entry of default. But in some cases, a court will decide that the defendant's reasons aren't good enough and refuse to vacate the entry of default.

Once a default is entered, the plaintiff can ask the court for a judgment on damages. The plaintiff must prove how much he or she should receive as compensation. If the plaintiff's claim is based on a contract that specifically identifies the amount owing, the court can enter judgment for that amount. In such a case, the damages are described as being liquidated. That means that the amount is known.

When the amount of damages are not so easily determined, they are described as unliquidated. In this situation, the plaintiff will need to present bills relating to his or her injury and evidence of other expenses, lost profits, the value of lost opportunities, and the like. The defendant is entitled to participate in these proceedings to contest the amount of damages and what kinds of damages may be recovered. In a case involving a personal injury, the plaintiff will need to submit medical bills and expenses, a request for a certain amount to compensate for pain and suffering, or lost wages. If appropriate, the plaintiff also may ask for compensation for future expenses. In cases of serious injury, the plaintiff may want to present witness testimony to establish what the plaintiff's future needs will be and how much money will be required to meet those needs.

When the court has decided how much the plaintiff is entitled to receive, it will enter judgment for that amount. The plaintiff will become a judgment creditor and may begin collection proceedings. The plaintiff also may turn to the defendant's insurer, if the insurer has been identified, and make a demand for coverage.

Thus, motions are an important part of the litigation process. Often, they can end a case before it even begins or before it reaches trials. Contact an attorney for more information about the litigation process.

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