Resolution Before Trial: Court Motions
Pretrial motions can 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 and end the dispute before trial, it is called 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 dispositive motions that might end your case before trial, and how those motions 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 one or more of the following legal deficiencies:
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.
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.
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.
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 more 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.
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.
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.
Motion for Default Judgment
If a 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 a defendant is in default, acts promptly, and has an adequate excuse, he or she may be able to convince the court to set aside or 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 defendants reasons aren't good enough and refuse to set aside or vacate the entry of default.
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