A Motion for Summary Judgement is intended to resolve matters in a lawsuit where, based on whatever undisputed facts exist at that stage of the suit, the court may draw a legal conclusion. Such motions can resolve narrow issues before the case gets to trial, for example in cases where there is no question the defendant was responsible for the damages and the only question is the amount of damages the plaintiff is due, or they can end a claim altogether, such as when a court concludes that there is no reasonable jury that would find a defendant liable.
Of course, sometimes a court gets ahead of its skis in trying to get rid of a case. The recent federal Seventh Circuit of Appeals opinion in Moses Perez v. K & B Transportation, Inc., 19-2984 (7th Cir. 2020) highlights exactly such a case.
The facts in this matter were heavily disputed. The only facts that the parties seemed to agree on were that, in the early morning snow and ice of January 20, 2016, a tractor trailer driven by Kiara Wharton, an employee of K & B Transportation, Inc., struck the rear right corner of the Perez’s vehicle on a stretch of I-294 where the posted speed limit was 55 mph. Basically everything leading up to this is a matter of who one believes. Perez (husband and wife) claimed that they were driving in the same lane as Wharton when they slid out on black ice, but recovered control of the vehicle and returned to that lane, where Wharton struck them because she was driving too fast for conditions to react. Wharton claimed that the Perez vehicle spun out across three lanes of traffic, slowed almost to a stop on the shoulder, and then swerved out in front of her, making it impossible for her to react in time regardless of her speed.
There are some other procedural irregularities at issue in the case, but the Federal District court somehow concluded that no reasonable jury could find negligence on the part of Wharton and dismissed the claim on a Motion for Summary Judgement. The Appeals court review Motions for Summary Judgement from the ground up themselves, so it didn’t even get into how the lower court came to that conclusion. Instead, in reversing the decision and reinstating the case, the court points out that “the record presents the trier of fact with two plausible and conflicting versions of how Perez’s car spun out of control”—exactly the sort of question that should be put to a jury, not decided by a judge in Summary Judgment.
The Appeals court also points out that even though Wharton testified that she was following the posted speed limit prior to the incident, the more important question in this particular case is whether that was a reasonable speed under the circumstances. Moses Perez testified that the general speed of traffic at the time of the accident was only about 15-30 mph due to the weather conditions, and the court rightly noted in making its decision that there is a real question of fact whether, under the circumstances, driving T the posted speed limit might actually have been negligent. Finally, the documented damage and report of the responding police officer do make it clear that Wharton struck the rear of the Perez vehicle, and a jury could always take this into consideration when trying to evaluate the testimony of the parties.
This case is a good example of a seemingly straightforward vehicle collision that had to be fought at the appellate court level in order to continue. Luckily for the Perez family, they now get the chance to get the jury trial (or further settlement negotiations) that they deserve.
Attorney Travis Dunn