Anatomy of a Case

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Dispositive Motions

One of the least understood elements of a case, especially to a Plaintiff, are motions that appear to never let the Plaintiff "tell his case to a jury" and result in the case being dismissed without a trial. Understanding these can help to decide whether to become involved in a lawsuit in the first place.

Motion to Dismiss the Case and/or Motion for Summary Judgment. Without analyzing the technical differences of each of these, we will discuss a few generalizations that will lead to an understanding of a hurdle that must be overcome by almost every Plaintiff in a lawsuit.

Most states have some type of protective procedure that allows a Defendant who believes they were unfairly sued, or had no conduct related to the case in which they were named a Defendant, to ask a court to dismiss a case, or dismiss them from the case. This is a procedural safeguard that prevents a Defendant from having to expend thousands of hours and dollars in legal fees, only to find out at trial that they were in no way related in any manner to the harm caused to a Plaintiff. Most states in the United States have court systems that allow parties to sue any party for anything. But, they will not let parties recover from others for any harm, regardless of fault. Thus, once a Petition is filed and an Answer filed, a Defendant can avail themselves of a procedure referred to here loosely as a Motion to Dismiss or Motion For Summary Judgment.

This Motion enables a Defendant to make the argument, usually at any time during the pre-trial phase of a case, that the Plaintiff either cannot prove the statements in his Petition, or that there is a defect in the evidence Plaintiff will use to prove his case such that if it is excluded, Plaintiff will not be able to prove his case.

As an example, in a case where a Plaintiff has alleged that she is entitled to recover under a life insurance policy for the death of her husband, an insurance company, in many states, can file a Motion For Summary Judgment claiming that the husband lied about his medical condition to obtain the insurance, and that because of this, there should be no trial, the wife should get nothing and all parties should "go home."

Assuming the Defendant brings the policy to court with the Motion, along with the statements made by the husband, and along with proof that these statements were lies, such a Motion might be granted, depending upon a particular state’s insurance laws. Even though this seems like a shocking result for the wife, who may only have known that they had insurance and relied on it and did not purchase more, courts may be forced to grant a Defendant’s Motion under these facts. This means that the case would be dismissed without ever allowing the Plaintiff to prove other relevant facts, like the agent lied about the policy, or the agent told the husband what to write so the policy would be issued and the agent could make a commission.

These motions are routine, but because they can lead to the dismissal of a lawsuit, they can be a tremendous amount of work, under significant time limits for a Plaintiff’s lawyer. Thus, if your lawyer receives such a Motion, you should take all steps to assist your attorney, since he may not have had the time to develop enough evidence to overcome the Motion. It is absolutely critical to understand the nature of this Motion, since the lawsuit may end if the Judge grants the Motion. Also, it should be something you consider before filing a lawsuit, and expect that it can happen during your suit, often through no fault of any party or lawyer, but just because state law provides a limitation to recovery for Plaintiffs.

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