A Case That Everyone Knows: Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., Decided 22 Years Ago Today

If there is one case that every New Jersey litigator, and even most non-litigators, know, it is Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 142 N.J. 520 (1995).  That opinion, written by Justice Coleman for a unanimous Supreme Court, was issued on October 24, 1995.  Westlaw shows that the case has had 15,635 citing references since then.

Brill updated the standard for summary judgment, for which Judson v. Peoples Bank & Trust Co. of Westfield, 17 N.J. 67 (1954), had long been the leading case.  Following the lead of a number of other states, the Supreme Court imported into New Jersey’s summary judgment practice the principles of three decisions from the Supreme Court of the United States, Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986), Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986), and Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986).

The core holding of Brill, later implemented by an amendment to Rule 4:46-2(c), the summary judgment rule, was as follows: “Consistent with this national trend, we hold that under Rule 4:46-2, when deciding summary judgment motions trial courts are required to engage in the same type of evaluation, analysis or sifting of evidential materials as required by Rule 4:37-2(b) in light of the burden of persuasion that applies if the matter goes to trial.”  Rule 4:37-2 is the rule that governs involuntary dismissals at trial.  The Court thus aligned summary judgment practice with dismissal practice, reasoning that the evidence in a case should be evaluated in the same way at summary judgment as on a motion for dismissal at trial.

Justice Coleman was careful, however, to reiterate the admonition of Judson that “a trial court ruling on a summary judgment motion not ‘shut a deserving litigant from his [or her] trial.”  At the same time, he emphasized (again quoting Judson) that summary judgment, properly applied, prevents “harassment of an equally deserving suitor for immediate relief by a long and worthless trial,” an especially important consideration in “cases in which a trial would serve no useful purpose and cases in which the threat of trial is used to coerce a settlement.”

The Court followed these references to Judson with the admission that the Justices “may have permitted an encrustation of the Judson standard that obscured its essential import.”  All that language seemed to indicate that relatively little was being changed, and that [t]he thrust of [the Brill] decision [was] to encourage trial courts not to refrain from granting summary judgment when the proper circumstances present themselves.”

Summary judgment is often thought of as primarily a defense weapon.  But not often recognized is the fact that Brill went on to affirm a summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff there, holding that the defendant insurance broker and his insurance agency had not presented a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to defeat summary judgment on plaintiff’s claim for negligent failure to give proper advice regarding available insurance.