Frequently, civil actions are dismissed before a trial on the merits of the underlying claims. In addition to settlement, dismissal of a civil action may come about under a number of circumstances.
A. Voluntary Dismissal.
A party’s ability to dismiss its own action is limited by the rules of civil procedure. The dismissal rules also apply to counterclaims, crossclaims, and third-party claims. A party may dismiss its lawsuit voluntarily without a court order prior to trial, as long as no motion for summary judgment has been heard or one has been denied and the case has not been submitted to the fact-finder. An action may be dismissed by stipulation of the parties. If the plaintiff previously has dismissed a similar case, this second dismissal will operate as an adjudication on the merits and the plaintiff will not be permitted to refile the action. Otherwise, the plaintiff may be able to refile the action. However, the plaintiff may be required to pay costs before bringing a similar action against the same party.
B. Involuntary Dismissal.
The court may enter an order of dismissal as a sanction for failure to comply with court rules or orders. In evaluating whether the compliance merits this drastic sanction, the court considers the intent of the noncompliant party, the existence of previous sanctions, the involvement of the client, the degree of prejudice to the other side, and any justification for noncompliance.
If a case is tried to the court (i.e., without a jury), a party may seek involuntary dismissal if the other side, after completing its presentation of evidence, has failed to show a right to relief. Unless the order states that the dismissal is without prejudice, an involuntary dismissal under this rule is an adjudication on the merits and precludes the plaintiff from refiling the action.
An action shall be dismissed by the court for failure to prosecute if there has been no record activity for one year unless the court has stayed the action or a party shows good cause prior to the hearing. In practice, this rule is strictly enforced.
C. Summary Judgment.
After the lawsuit has been filed, either party may move for summary judgment, subject to certain time restrictions. Unlike a motion to dismiss, a motion for summary judgment does more than challenge the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Of course, a summary judgment motion may be directed to a counterclaim, crossclaim, or third-party claim in the same manner. In moving for a summary judgment, one argues that the opposing party cannot present evidence that would be sufficient to demonstrate a “genuine issue as to any material fact” and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Orders granting summary judgment are scrutinized closely on appeal.
The motion for summary judgment may be supported or opposed by competent affidavits made on personal knowledge that set forth admissible facts. The parties also may rely upon depositions and answers to interrogatories. However, in evaluating a motion for summary judgment, a trial judge may not weigh evidence or assess credibility. If the material facts are in dispute, summary judgment may not be entered and the litigation continues.
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