Question of Fact

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Question of Fact

An issue that involves the resolution of a factual dispute or controversy and is within the sphere of the decisions to be made by a jury.

A question of fact is a factual dispute between litigants that must be resolved by the jury at trial. It is an issue that is material to the outcome of the case and requires an interpretation of conflicting views on the factual circumstances surrounding the case.

A question of fact is best understood by comparing it to a Question of Law. Whether a particular issue in a civil case is a question of fact or law is significant because it can determine whether a party wins the case on Summary Judgment. Summary judgment is a judgment on the merits of the case without a trial. A civil respondent may move for summary judgment at any time after the suit has been filed, but a plaintiff generally must wait a short period after filing the suit (for the defendant to respond) before moving for summary judgment. In determining whether to grant a motion for summary judgment, a court may consider admissions by the parties in their pleadings, answers to interrogatories and depositions, and affidavits of personal knowledge of facts.

A court will order summary judgment in a civil case if there is no genuine issue of fact and, based on the undisputed facts, the moving party is entitled to summary judgment as a Matter of Law. If a case does not involve any questions of fact, the only issues are questions of law, so the fact-finding process of a trial is not needed.

To illustrate, suppose that a plaintiff files suit to enforce an agreement to buy a plot of real estate. The respondent declares in her answer that the agreement was oral, and the plaintiff does not deny that the agreement was oral. The court could then order summary judgment in favor of the respondent because a contract for the sale of land must be in writing to be enforceable. Assuming that no other issues are involved, the admission that the agreement was oral eliminates the only material question of fact in the case. The only issue the court would have to decide would be a question of law: whether an oral agreement for the sale of land is enforceable. It is not, so the plaintiff would lose the case without the benefit of a trial because there are no material facts for a fact finder to decide.

Even if a plaintiff challenges a respondent's answer, a respondent may still win summary judgment by proving before trial that no question of fact exists in the case. To do this, the respondent must prove that no question of fact exists by the evidentiary standard that would be used at trial. In civil trials, this standard is either a preponderance of the evidence or the slightly higher standard of clear and convincing evidence.

Whether an issue is a question of fact or law is not always clear. In Cruse v. Coldwell Banker, 667 So. 2d 714 (Ala. 1995), Gary and Venita Cruse were shown a house advertised as new, although the sellers, Randy and Brenda Harris, were living in the house. The Cruses bought the house before making a complete inspection. Upon further inspection they discovered numerous defects, and sued the seller and the brokerage firm for Fraud. The respondents moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the Cruses knew that the sellers were living in the house and that the Cruses signed a contract that stated that they took the house as it was, without warranties. The trial court granted the motion, ruling that no question of fact existed in the case and that the respondents were entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. On appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the judgment. Regardless of the contract and the Cruses' knowledge of previous inhabitants, the description of the house as new carried with it an Implied Warranty of habitability. Because no determination had been made as to whether the house was actually new, a material question of fact remained and summary judgment was inappropriate.

A question of fact receives the same treatment in a bench (non-jury) trial as it does in a jury trial. The only difference is that in a bench trial the same person resolves both questions of law and fact because the fact finder is the judge. Nevertheless, in a bench trial, a judge may not decide material questions of fact without first affording the parties the process of a trial.

On appeal, a question of fact is treated differently than a question of law. If an appellant alleges that the fact finder incorrectly decided questions of fact, an appeals court will give deference to the fact finder's decisions. The fact finder gets to see and hear all the evidence and thus is in a better position to make factual determinations than is the appeals court. If an appellant claims that the trial judge incorrectly decided a question of law, however, the appeals court will examine the trial judge's ruling more carefully. Essentially, it is more difficult to over-turn a verdict based on a question of fact than a verdict based on a question of law.

Further readings

Arnold, Alvin L., and Marshall E. Tracht. 1996. "Fraud: Whether a House Is New Is Question of Fact." Real Estate Law Report 26 (November).

Louisell, David W., Geoffrey C. Hazard, Jr., and Colin C. Tait. 1989. Pleading and Procedure: State and Federal; Cases and Materials. 6th ed. Westbury, N.Y.: Foundation Press.

Meslar, Roger W., ed. 1990. Legalines Civil Procedure. 3d ed. Chicago: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Legal and Professional Publications.

Reytblat, Julia. 1999. "Is Originality in Copyright Law a 'Question of law' or a 'Question of fact?'" Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal 17 (spring).

Cross-references

Clear and Convincing Proof; Preponderance of Evidence.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

question of fact

n. in a lawsuit or criminal prosecution, an issue of fact in which the truth or falsity (or a mix of the two) must be determined by the "trier of fact" (the jury or the judge in a non-jury trial) in order to reach a decision in the case. A "question of fact" may also be raised in a motion for summary judgment which asks the court to determine whether there are any questions of fact to be tried, allowing the judge to rule on the case (usually to dismiss the complaint) at that point without a trial. "Questions of fact" are distinguished from "questions of law," which can only be decided by the judge. (See: question of law, judge, motion for summary judgment, finding)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.
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