“That’s a very interesting theory, Mr. Monk, but do you have any evidence?”
In a classic episode of the TV series Monk, super-detective Adrian Monk meets his match in the courtroom when the defendant’s attorney asks Monk to prove the brilliant deductions he has used to solve the case. Monk knows he is right, but he does not have the evidence to back up his claims.
Therefore, the case is thrown out by the judge.
In my post on January 26, I discussed how a frivolous lawsuit can be dismissed by the court if plaintiff does not allege facts that add up to a legal claim. The flip side of this coin is the case where the plaintiff alleges all of the right things in her complaint, but does not have the actual evidence necessary to support it.
In a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff has the burden of proving all of the facts necessary to support her claim.
For example, in a slip-and-fall case, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant had a duty to protect her from some hazard, that the defendant failed to use reasonable care to meet that duty, that the plaintiff fell because of the hazard, and that she suffered damages due to her fall. If the plaintiff cannot prove any of these elements, the defendant wins.
Ohio provides for open discovery in civil cases, which means each side can ask the other to produce all of the evidence that it has to support its case. By the time discovery is over, and sometimes much earlier, the defendant will know if there is a gap in what the plaintiff can prove.
In some cases, the plaintiff will not be able to prove her case because she lacks evidence to support a key allegation.
For example, if the plaintiff cannot prove that the defendant’s property was negligently maintained, the defendant wins. Or if the plaintiff cannot prove that she suffered damages because of her fall, the defendant wins.
In other cases, the defendant will have his own evidence proving facts that the plaintiff cannot overcome. For example, the defendant might have records showing that he did not own or control the property where the plaintiff fell.
In either case, if the defendant believes that the evidence does not support the plaintiff’s case, he can file a motion for summary judgment.
In support of this motion, the defendant can point both to plaintiff’s lack of evidence and to his own affirmative evidence that would prove his defense. In response, the plaintiff must produce evidence to refute the defendant’s position; the plaintiff cannot rely on the mere allegations of her complaint.
If the court finds that no reasonable person could rule for the plaintiff based on the evidence produced by the parties, the case is dismissed.
If a motion for summary judgment is denied, it does not mean that the plaintiff wins; it only means that there is enough evidence to require a trial. (By the way, it is possible for the plaintiff to get a summary judgment if the evidence is overwhelmingly against the defendant, but that is a topic for another day.)
Although summary judgments are one way of getting rid of frivolous lawsuits, they are not much comfort to the defendant. Summary judgments are hard to get, and by the time a defendant can gather all of the facts necessary to support his motion, he typically has spent thousands of dollars in legal fees. In my next post on this topic, I will talk about other tools the courts have to discourage the filing of frivolous cases.
Have a question or a suggestion for a topic? Contact Dennis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patch posts are general discussions and should not be used as advice on any specific legal matter. If you need legal advice on a particular situation, please consult an attorney.