Tort Reform for Dummies: A Rudimentary Look at Summary Judgment

February 8 , 2018

As a follow-up to our showing of the documentary “Hot Coffee:  Is Justice being served?” last Saturday night, I am going to talk about Tort Reform for Dummies:  A rudimentary look at Summary Judgment.

If a lawsuit is “frivolous”, it won’t make it past the judge.  The average American does not understand this rule and its significance to American Jurisprudence.  Many of us attain our legal knowledge from such legal dramas as “Law & Order”.   These legal dramas emphasize the litigation and investigative side of the law and ignore the procedural side of the law or the “not so sexy side”.

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 Yal L.J. 193, 195-203) (1928).  For centuries, Summary Judgment acted as a tool to keep unwarranted litigation out of the court system.

In 1970 N.C. 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, N.C. 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 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.

Efficiency in the courts 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.

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