Under Louisiana law, a motion for summary judgment is a procedural device that allows a court to resolve a case without a full trial when there is no “genuine issue of material fact” to be decided. See Duncan v. USAA Insurance Co., 950 So.2d 544 (La. 2006). A “genuine issue of material fact” is a matter about which reasonable people could disagree. This kind of decision is left to the jury to decide (or, in the case of a bench trial, the trial judge). If, based on the evidence, reasonable people could reach only one conclusion about an issue, there is no need for a jury to resolve it. A fact is “material” when it relates to an essential element of a plaintiff’s theory of recovery. A motion for summary judgment can be filed by either the plaintiff or defendant (the “movant”). The initial burden of proof rests with the mover to show that based on the pleadings, depositions, interrogatories, and affidavits, no genuine issue of material fact exists in the case. If the movant makes this initial showing, the burden then shifts to the other party to present evidence that shows that a material fact issue actually does exist; in the absence of this evidence, the court can grant the motion. See Hutchinson v. Knights of Columbus, 866 So.2d 228 (La. 2004).
Typically, the questions of a defendant’s negligence or a plaintiff’s contributory negligence are issues of fact and are therefore not appropriate for summary judgment. Freeman v. Teague, 862 So.2d 371 (La. App. 2d Cir. 2003). However, in the event that reasonable minds cannot differ, these matters can be resolved by summary judgment. For instance, in the case of Pruitt v. Nale, No. 45,483-CA (La. App. 2d Cir. 2010), the plaintiff employed a motion for summary judgment both to recover damages from the defendant and to dispute the defendant’s allegation of contributory negligence.
On March 9, 2007, Tiffany Pruitt, then 19, was driving her father’s pickup truck eastbound on East Jefferson Avenue in Bastrop, Louisiana. Glenn Nale was also driving in the same direction of travel on Jefferson Avenue. He was behind the wheel of a log-hauling tractor-trailer. At the intersection with South Franklin Street, both Pruitt and Nale stopped at the red light, with Pruitt in the center lane of travel and Nale in the designated left-turn lane. When Nale began making a left turn onto South Franklin Street, the logs protruding from the rear of his trailer swung into the center lane and slammed into Pruitt’s truck. At least one of the logs shattered the driver’s side window and entered the cab of the truck, severely injuring Pruitt.
In 2008, Pruitt and her parents filed a complaint against Nale for damages, which Nale answered and asserted comparative negligence on Pruitt’s part. Pruitt then filed a motion for summary judgment. A hearing on the motion was held on March 31, 2009 and the trial court rendered a judgment in favor of Pruitt, finding that Nale was 100 percent at fault for the accident. The court relied on a state law that requires drivers to ensure they can safely execute a turn before making it, which Nale clearly failed to do. The court further concluded that the evidence showed that Pruitt could not have been at fault: after the traffic light turned green, “she drove off at a normal speed, [Nale’s] truck right ahead of her turned and the logs came in front of her truck for just a second or two, but long enough for contact to be made. She was not at fault if she ran into the logs.” Nale appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in granting the motion for summary judgment on the issue of liability “because there were material factual disputes as to whether [Nale was] negligent and whether … Pruitt was comparatively at fault” for following Nale’s truck too closely.
The court reviewed the affidavits of the parties, several eye-witnesses, and the police officer who investigated the scene, as well as the other evidence in the record. It disagreed with Nale’s allegation that Pruitt followed his truck too closely. The court noted that Nale did not dispute that Pruitt’s vehicle remained entirely within its lane of travel at all times leading up to the impact, and dismissed Nale’s contention that because his truck somewhat encroached into Pruitt’s lane as he began to make the turn, Pruitt should have anticipated that the logs would strike her truck. Thus, the court concluded that the evidence did not create an issue of fact about whether Pruitt negligently “rear-ended the protruding logs on the truck,” and affirmed the trial court’s granting of summary judgment.
The Pruitt case shows how critical a thoroughly crafted record is to a successful motion for summary judgment. Even though summary judgment is more often used by defendants than plaintiffs, and even though issues of negligence and comparative fault are rarely determined by summary judgment, Pruitt was successful in her motion because the record contained enough details about the incident that Nale was unable to convincingly suggest any alternative explanations for what happened. Drafting strategic pleadings, securing effective affidavits from witnesses, and conducting thorough discovery are all essential elements of a summary judgment victory, and are all tasks that benefit from the experience of an expert trial attorney who understands the process.