Summary Judgment vs Directed Verdict: Court Decisions Before and After Trial

published on 28 December 2023

Most legal professionals would agree that understanding the differences between summary judgment and directed verdict is critical for effective litigation strategy.

In this post, you'll learn the key distinctions between these two pivotal pre-trial and trial court decisions to masterfully navigate dispositive motions in civil and criminal cases.

We'll compare the timing, legal standards, and procedural postures of summary judgment versus directed verdict, when each can occur, the grounds for appeal, and how to strategically leverage both to advance your client's interests in litigation.

Introduction to Summary Judgment and Directed Verdicts

Summary judgments and directed verdicts are important pre-trial and trial court decisions in civil and criminal cases. This section provides an overview of what they are and when they occur.

Understanding the Motion for Summary Judgment

A motion for summary judgment is a request made by one party in a civil lawsuit asking the judge to decide the case or issue in their favor, without going to trial. It is typically filed after discovery and depositions are complete.

To grant summary judgment, the judge must determine there are no genuine issues of material fact for a jury to decide at trial. The moving party attempts to show the evidence could not reasonably support a verdict for the non-moving party. If granted, summary judgment ends the case or issue prior to trial.

Exploring Directed Verdicts in Court Decisions

A directed verdict is a ruling by a trial judge in a civil or criminal case that takes an issue away from the jury because the evidence could only reasonably support one conclusion.

In civil cases, it is granted when the plaintiff has not presented enough proof for a reasonable jury to find for them, even if the jury believes all the evidence. In criminal cases, judges may direct a verdict of acquittal when prosecutors lack convincing evidence.

Directed verdicts allow judges to have more control in the trial process and avoid unnecessary jury deliberations. However, they can be appealed or overturned under certain circumstances.

Can a motion for summary judgment be made before during or after a trial?

Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a motion for summary judgment can be filed at any time until 30 days after the close of discovery, unless the court sets a different deadline. This means summary judgment motions can be filed before, during, or after a trial, as long as they meet the court's scheduling order.

Key points about the timing of summary judgment motions:

  • They are usually filed before trial, in order to avoid unnecessary litigation if there is no genuine dispute of material fact. This allows the court to dismiss meritless claims.
  • If discovery yields new evidence creating a dispute, summary judgment motions can also be filed during trial, up until 30 days after discovery ends.
  • Courts seldom allow summary judgment motions after a trial concludes. At that point, a motion for judgment as a matter of law would be more applicable.
  • Specific deadlines for dispositive motions like summary judgment are established in a court's scheduling order. Parties must comply with the set deadlines or seek an extension from the judge.

So in summary, summary judgment provides a mechanism to resolve issues and dismiss claims before trial when there is no triable question of fact. The deadline for these dispositive motions depends on the court's scheduling order but generally can occur before, during or shortly after discovery concludes.

What's the difference between summary judgment and directed verdict?

Summary judgment and directed verdict are two types of motions that can be filed in a civil case, but they occur at very different stages of the legal process.

Key Differences

  • Timing - A motion for summary judgment is typically filed before trial, after discovery is complete. A motion for directed verdict is made during trial, after the plaintiff's case is presented.
  • Purpose - Summary judgment aims to resolve the case before trial if there are no genuine issues of material fact. Directed verdict aims to end the trial early if the plaintiff has failed to present enough evidence to support their case.
  • Standard - For summary judgment, the evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. For directed verdict, the judge will consider whether reasonable jurors could find for the plaintiff based on the evidence.
  • Outcome - Summary judgment can fully resolve the case before trial. Directed verdict results in a judgment for the defense, but the plaintiff may be able to file an appeal.

So in summary, summary judgment occurs pre-trial and directed verdict occurs during trial. Summary judgment has a lower evidence standard and can end the entire case, while directed verdict only ends the trial itself. Both are important tools for resolving civil lawsuits efficiently when appropriate.

Can summary Judgement happen before discovery?

It is generally unusual for a party to file a motion for summary judgment before discovery has commenced or even been completed. At minimum, the defendant typically files an answer to the complaint before any dispositive motions are filed. There are some limited exceptions, but courts generally frown upon premature summary judgment motions.

Filing for summary judgment prior to discovery raises due process concerns, as the non-moving party has not had adequate opportunity to obtain evidence to support their claims or defenses. Courts want to ensure both parties have reasonable access to discovery in order to make their respective cases.

Overall, while not always prohibited, attempting to short-circuit the litigation process by filing dispositive motions too early on often leads courts to deny or defer judgment on procedural grounds rather than evaluating the merits. The best practice is to initiate and complete discovery first, allowing all parties to gather necessary information, before filing for summary dismissal of claims.

When in the trial process does a directed verdict occur?

A directed verdict may occur at any point during a trial, but typically happens after the plaintiff has presented their case-in-chief. Here is an overview of when a directed verdict may occur:

  • After the plaintiff's opening statement: If the judge determines that the opening statement failed to allege facts that establish a legally recognized claim, they may direct a verdict without hearing any evidence. However, this is rare.
  • After the plaintiff's case-in-chief: This is the most common time for a directed verdict motion. If the plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence to support their claims, the defendant can move for a directed verdict.
  • After the close of all evidence: Either party can move for a directed verdict at this stage. The judge will determine if there are any factual issues left for the jury to decide based on the evidence presented.
  • After the jury is unable to reach a verdict: If the jury becomes deadlocked, the judge may take the case from the jury and direct a verdict.

So in summary, a motion for directed verdict can occur throughout the trial process, from the opening statement to when the jury is deliberating. But it most often happens after the plaintiff's case-in-chief when the judge evaluates if enough evidence was provided to proceed further.


Comparing Summary Judgment and Directed Verdict

This section will highlight the differences and similarities between summary judgment and directed verdicts, including the timing of each motion, the legal standards applied, and the role of the judge and jury.

Timing: Pre-Trial Motions vs. Trial Rulings

Summary judgment motions occur before trial, while directed verdict motions occur during or after the close of evidence at trial. This impacts the record available when the judge makes a ruling.

  • Summary judgment motions are filed before trial begins. The judge reviews evidence such as depositions, documents, admissions, affidavits, etc. to make a ruling.
  • Directed verdict motions are made after the plaintiff's case during trial. The judge has heard live witness testimony and reviewed trial evidence before ruling.

The key timing difference is that summary judgment happens pre-trial, while directed verdicts happen during or after trial based on the trial evidence record.

Summary judgments and directed verdicts have different legal standards judges apply to determine whether to grant the motion.

  • The summary judgment standard is whether there is a "genuine dispute of material fact" when viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.
  • The directed verdict standard (also called judgment as a matter of law) is whether a "reasonable jury" would have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party based on the trial evidence.

In essence, summary judgment determines if there is enough evidence to proceed to trial, while a directed verdict determines if the trial evidence allows a reasonable jury to rule for the plaintiff. Both involve judges assessing the evidence, but at different stages of litigation and based on different records.

This section explores key dispositive motions in civil litigation - summary judgment and directed verdict - that can resolve a case before trial. We'll examine the legal grounds and strategic considerations around these motions.

The Role of Summary Judgment in Resolving Civil Claims

Summary judgment is used to dismiss claims that lack sufficient evidence to proceed to a jury trial. A party files a summary judgment motion, arguing that undisputed facts show the other party cannot establish an essential element of their claim.

For example, in a breach of contract claim, a key element is demonstrating defendant's breach of a contractual duty. If undisputed evidence shows no duty existed, the claim may fail on summary judgment.

Courts view evidence in light most favorable to non-moving party when deciding summary judgment motions. Granted motions dismiss claims entirely; denied motions allow claims to proceed to trial.

Strategically, summary judgment is a dispositive motion that can resolve a claim pre-trial. It forces parties to put forth actual evidence early, not just pleadings and allegations. Strong summary judgment motions require skillfully showing the court that undisputed evidence sinks an essential claim element.

Directed Verdicts in Civil Case Trials

A directed verdict motion asks the judge to rule that no reasonable jury could find for the other party, based on trial evidence. In civil cases, it may be brought after the plaintiff's case or after all parties rest.

Grounds for directed verdict after plaintiff's case argue evidence was insufficient to establish essential claim elements. If granted, the claim does not reach a jury. After all parties rest, it argues the defendant's evidence defeats the claim. If granted, no jury deliberations occur.

Strategically, directed verdict motions allow judges to dismiss claims with inadequate trial evidence before sending claims to the jury. Timing and grounds are key: file early to dismiss claims lacking essential evidence; file late to argue defendant's evidence defeats the claim. Crafting compelling directed verdict motions requires skillfully analyzing trial evidence and its legal significance.

The Intersection of Directed Verdicts and Criminal Law

This section discusses the application of directed verdicts in criminal cases, including motions for directed verdicts of acquittal and how these decisions affect trial advocacy and defendants' rights.

Motions for Directed Verdict of Acquittal in Criminal Trials

In a criminal trial, the defense can make a motion for a directed verdict of acquittal under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29. This asks the judge to enter a judgment of acquittal before the case goes to the jury.

The judge will grant the motion if the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to convict. For example, if the prosecution does not provide evidence to prove each element of the charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge should direct a verdict of not guilty.

Challenging the Prosecution: Affirmative Defenses and Directed Verdicts

The defense may also seek a directed verdict of acquittal based on an affirmative defense. Affirmative defenses like self-defense and expiration of the statute of limitations can justify otherwise criminal acts.

If the defense establishes proof of an affirmative defense and the prosecution fails to rebut it, the judge can direct a verdict of not guilty. This spares the defendant from leaving their fate in the jury's hands.

Directed verdicts of acquittal are a powerful tool to challenge the prosecution's case and protect the rights of the accused. They allow judges to enter just verdicts when the evidence is clearly insufficient.

Post-Trial Motions: Seeking Relief After Jury Decisions

This section explores the post-trial motions available to parties in civil cases, focusing on the motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and the renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law.

Understanding Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV)

A motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) asserts that based on the trial evidence presented, no reasonable jury could have reached the verdict rendered. Therefore, the moving party requests the court to override the jury's verdict and enter judgment as a matter of law in their favor instead.

To succeed on a JNOV motion, the moving party must show that the non-moving party failed to present legally sufficient evidence to support each essential element of their claim. If reasonable minds could differ on the verdict based on the evidence, a JNOV motion will fail.

Directed Verdict vs. Renewed Judgment as a Matter of Law

While similar, a renewed judgment as a matter of law can only be requested after the jury verdict in order to nullify the result. In contrast, motions for directed verdict occur earlier, before the case goes to the jury, to prevent jury consideration altogether if the evidence is legally insufficient.

Both motions argue that no reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party based on the trial evidence. But while directed verdicts prevent wasted time and expense of jury deliberations, the renewed judgment as a matter of law allows the jury process before seeking to override an unreasonable verdict.

Appellate Review: Can Directed Verdicts and Summary Judgments Be Appealed?

This section outlines the process for appealing court decisions on summary judgments and directed verdicts, the standards of review, and the potential for reversal or affirmation.

De Novo Review and Substantial Evidence in Appellate Courts

Directed verdicts and summary judgments involve application of law and are reviewed de novo, while any factual inferences are reviewed for support by "substantial evidence".

  • Appellate courts review directed verdicts and summary judgments de novo, as they involve pure questions of law regarding the legal standards applied by the trial judge.
  • The appellate court examines the case completely anew ("de novo") without deference to the lower court's application of the law.
  • Any factual inferences made are reviewed under the "substantial evidence" standard, meaning that there must have been enough relevant evidence that a reasonable mind could have reached the same conclusion.

Grounds for Appellate Reversal of Dispositive Motions

Typical arguments for overturning these rulings include disputed material facts, improperly weighing evidence, and misapplying the legal standards.

  • Arguments for reversal typically involve claims that there were disputed issues of material fact that should have gone to a jury.
  • Other common grounds are that the trial judge improperly weighed evidence or failed to draw factual inferences in favor of the non-moving party.
  • Finally, appeals may assert that the lower court misapplied the legal standards for granting summary judgment or directed verdict.
  • If the appellate court finds for the appellant on any of these grounds, it will reverse the lower court ruling.

Conclusion: Strategic Use of Summary Judgment and Directed Verdict in Litigation

Recap of Summary Judgment and Directed Verdict Differences

Summary judgment and directed verdict are two important mechanisms for resolving cases before and during trial. Key differences include:

  • Timing - Summary judgment occurs before trial, while directed verdict occurs during trial after the plaintiff's case.
  • Grounds - Summary judgment asserts no genuine dispute of material fact, while directed verdict asserts insufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find for the plaintiff.
  • Standard - Summary judgment uses a lower evidence standard viewing facts in the light most favorable to the non-movant, while directed verdict uses a higher reasonable jury standard.
  • Jury - Summary judgment is decided by the judge, while directed verdict relates to potential jury fact-finding.

Litigation Strategy: Leveraging Dispositive Motions

Carefully utilizing summary judgment and directed verdict motions can help shape litigation outcomes. Key strategic considerations include:

  • Analyzing the case early to identify potential grounds for dismissal on the law or the facts.
  • Bringing summary judgment first before undertaking lengthy discovery or trial preparation.
  • Positioning directed verdict as a fallback to protect trial gains if the summary judgment motion fails.
  • Structuring legal arguments and evidence to align with the applicable standards at each stage.

Thoughtful use of these mechanisms can lead to quicker case resolution or greater confidence entering trial.

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