A directed verdict is a verdict that the judge has either ordered the jury to find or that the judge has taken from the jury and entered without their deliberation. A directed verdict is only used when the evidence for either the plaintiff or defendant in a case is so weak that the law cannot possibly support a finding in favor of that party. In these cases, the directed verdict is entered in favor of the other party.
The court may issue a directed verdict either on its own, known as issuing a directed verdict “sua sponte,” or it may issue a directed verdict after either the plaintiff or defendant makes a motion for directed verdict, specifically asking the court to issue a directed verdict in that party’s favor. Usually, the court will not enter a directed verdict until after all the parties have had a chance to present their cases, and it will not consider a motion for directed verdict until at least one party (usually the plaintiff, who ordinarily goes first during trial) has rested its case.
Directed verdicts are not often granted, no matter whether they originate with the parties or the judge. This is because a directed verdict is only appropriate when the evidence weighs so heavily in favor of one party, and so lightly in favor of the other, that no reasonable jury could find in favor of the party that has no evidence to support its case. However, most parties in both civil and criminal cases can at least find a bit of evidence that creates a question as to what actually happened, which means that a reasonable jury could possibly find for either side and therefore must be given the chance to consider the case.
In many U.S. courts, the concept of “judgment as a matter of law” has largely replaced the use of directed verdicts. A judgment as a matter of law is a judgment made by the judge, not the jury, but it is based on the same principle as a directed verdict: the evidence for one party is so minute that, as a matter of law, that party cannot win a court case based on that evidence.
A motion for summary judgment frequently asks for a judgment as a matter of law, and supports the request by showing that, even if all the evidence collected in discovery up to that point is taken in favor of the opposing party, there still is not enough evidence to support the opposing party’s case to justify sending the case to the jury. Therefore, argues the typical motion for summary judgment, the judge should rule as a matter of law that the party making the motion should win.
Motions for a directed verdict are rarely granted, but they are frequently made, because the rules of procedure in many civil and criminal courts state that, if a motion for directed verdict is not made, the party that failed to make it might be unable to appeal if he or she ends up losing the case or being dissatisfied with the verdict, the judgement in a civil case, or the sentence in a criminal case.