In many personal injury and medical malpractice cases, the bulk of the litigation actually occurs before a case reaches the trial phase. Much of this pre-trial litigation occurs over discovery-related matters, when the parties essentially argue over which evidence will be considered at trial and which evidence should be kept out. After the evidentiary issues have been resolved, either party is free to move for summary judgment based on the evidence presented to the court thus far in the proceeding.
In Washington, D.C., the Rules of Civil Procedure explain that summary judgment is appropriate when “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Simply put, this means that the party filing for summary judgment is claiming that the other party cannot win the case, even if the court resolves all issues in their favor. The credibility of a witness or document is not at issue in a summary judgment proceeding.
Of course, if the evidence does present an issue of material fact, the moving party cannot legally be entitled to summary judgment, since that issue must be resolved by a fact-finder (either by a judge or jury) at a trial. A recent medical malpractice case out of Indiana illustrates the point well.