Summary Judgment in Personal Injury Cases: The Importance of an Expert

Edward Maggio, J.D., M.S.

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— Updated on June 25, 2020

Summary Judgment in Personal Injury Cases: The Importance of an Expert

In the context of personal injury cases, summary judgment motions must show that there are no material facts at issue. As a matter of law, the moving party is entitled to a judgment in their favor. Often summary judgment motions are filed by defendants or rebutted by the plaintiff using experts. Such experts increase the likelihood of success, using expert opinion to ensure a legal victory. Experts in this area are most commonly used for cases in which one side must offer an alternative explanation for the opposing party’s view of the facts.

A plaintiff has the goal of defeating any summary judgment motion. This is because the denial of a defendant’s motion for summary judgment increases the plaintiff’s odds of receiving a favorable personal injury settlement. If the motion is granted in favor of a defendant, however, it could end a plaintiff’s case and let the defendant escape any liability.

Sufficiency of the Expert

Often times, the sufficiency of a defendant’s summary judgment motion (and the plaintiff’s opposition), hinges on expert opinion. Such opinions are often submitted in the form of an affidavit. However, it is sometimes difficult to gauge exactly what makes an expert’s opinion admissible versus deficient. Thus, it is important to keep in mind the definition of material issue of fact in the context of a summary judgment motion in a personal injury case. This is where a motion in limine can play a role in this situation.

Motion in Limine

A motion in limine plays an important role in relation to summary judgment. A motion in limine is filed by a party to a lawsuit which asks the court for an order limiting or preventing certain evidence from being presented by the opposition. Thus, a motion for summary judgment can be strengthened by the use of a motion in limine. In personal injury cases, courts will address these motions first when the challenged evidence is important to the outcome of a future summary judgment motion. This includes exclusions and limitations on an expert witness.

What Constitutes Expert Admissibility?

Courts are not required to hold a hearing on expert admissibility. However, a motion for summary judgment may be denied if “made before a court has had the opportunity to hold a Daubert hearing and consider the admissibility.” McConaghy v. Sequa (2003) was key in demonstrating how to use a Daubert focused motion in limine. The court determined it was proper motion practice for challenging an expert’s admissibility and denying defendant’s summary judgment motion.

Generally, courts will not entertain a full Daubert hearing when considering a motion in limine. However, they will decide the matter on the papers, unless novel issues of science are central to a personal injury case. When the same expert challenge is presented as a motion for summary judgment, however, courts may be more reluctant to decide expert admissibility without a full development of the facts and evidence lest the parties not have a full opportunity to be heard on the issue.

A Unique Struggle

The manner in which this situation plays out in court can be unique between the plaintiff and defendant. A moving party can also argue an opponent cannot meet a necessary element of its case. With the testimony of the expert excluded, there would be a strong argument for summary judgment. On the contrary, if the expert is admitted, the expert’s testimony can still be challenged. Such a challenge would focus on the lack of key elements of the proponent’s case. The outcome of the motion in limine therefore, will not guarantee the success of a motion for summary judgment. Likewise, the summary judgment motion is not contingent upon the exclusion of the expert witness. The struggle during this time period between both sides provides multiple opportunities to secure results in their favor.

However, the recent trends seen in summary judgment motions indicate a greater likelihood of defense success. It has been surmised that this is mostly due to increased judicial scrutiny of plaintiff’s expert’s credentials and their affidavits. Thus, it is critical to keep in mind as the applicable standards of proof. It suggests that a plaintiff on the offensive has a higher level of scrutiny when it comes to their chosen expert witnesses. It also means that defendants have a greater opportunity to successfully secure a summary judgment victory through the use of an expert witness.

Experience Counts

It is important due to the dynamic nature of motion practice in personal injury cases to select the best expert. Success increases for the party actively selecting an expert that is familiar with advanced litigation. This requires research as to an expert that is a leader in their industry and is aware of the standards for legal documents necessary for motion practice.

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