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Tort Reform: A Rudimentary Look At Summary Judgement

April 3, 2015

If a lawsuit is ‘frivolous’ it won’t make it past the judge.  The average American does not understand summary judgment and its significance to American Jurisprudence.  Most individuals attain their legal knowledge from such legal dramas as “Law & Order” or “Law & Order: SVU” or “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” or “Law & Order: We Only Show the Sexy Part of the Law” (ok, I may have made the last one up, but you understand my point).  These legal dramas emphasize the litigation and investigative side of the law and ignore the actual law, the procedural side of the law, or the “not so sexy side” (which is probably why “Law & Order: Trial by Jury” was canceled after only one season).

The American Judicial system understood the need for checks on ‘frivolous lawsuits’ long before ‘frivolous lawsuits’ became a part of the American Political and Social vocabulary.  In 1769, the then colony of South Carolina passed a rule which allowed a judge to decide summarily any civil action less than £20, as long as one of the parties did not demand a jury trial.  Millar, Three American Ventures in Summary Civil Procedure, 38 Yale L.J. 193, 195-203 (1928).  For centuries, Summary Judgment has acted as a tool to keep unwarranted litigation out of the court system.

The pertinent paragraph of Rule 56(c) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure reads as follows; “The judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is NO GENUINE ISSUE AS TO ANY MATERIAL FACT AND THAT ANY PARTY IS ENTITLED TO A JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW.” (emphasis added)  N.C. Gen.Stat. § 1A-1 Rule 56(c).

In a 1970 North Carolina Court of Appeals case, the Court made it abundantly clear the purpose of Summary Judgment in North Carolina.  Quoting a Fourth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals case, the North Carolina Court of Appeals said; “Summary judgment is to avoid a useless trial.  It is a device to make possible the prompt disposition of controversies on their merits without a trial, if in essence there is no real dispute as to the salient facts. * * * While a day in Court may be a constitutional necessity when there are disputed questions of fact, the function of the motion of summary judgment is to smoke out if there is any case, i.e., any genuine dispute as to any material fact, and, if there is no case, to conserve judicial time and energy by avoiding an unnecessary trial and by providing a speedy and efficient summary disposition.”  Pridgen v. Hughes, 177 S.E.2d 425, 427, 9 N.C.App. 635, 638 (1970) (quoting Bland v. Norfolk and Southern Railroad Co. Inc., 406 F.2d 863 (4th Cir. 1969).  To those of you who do not speak the abstract language that is legalese, Summary Judgment is used to get rid of the cases that should not be in the legal system, thus creating efficiency in the courts.

This is the calling card of ‘tort reform.’  So why do we need so-called ‘tort reform’ when there is already a system in place which weeds out those cases not deserving of the court’s time?  The answer; we have been led astray by those who wish the American Public to remain ignorant to their rights and the importance of the American Tort System.