2 minute read

Ultimate Facts

Information essential to a plaintiff's right of action or a defendant's assertion of a defense.

The concept of ultimate facts used to be an essential part of preparing a PLEADING in a civil action. Until the late 1930s, the rules of CIVIL PROCEDURE in federal and state courts required parties to plead on the basis of a statement of facts constituting the CAUSE OF ACTION or defense. These ultimate facts alleged the sub-stance of the cause of action and were distinguished from evidentiary facts, which concerned the particular events of the case, and conclusions of law. The highly technical distinctions among ultimate facts, evidentiary facts, and conclusions of law created great confusion and often led to the dismissal of cases based on a pleading mistake.

The development of these distinctions can be traced to the 1848 New York Code of Civil Procedure, which was largely drafted by DAVID DUDLEY FIELD. During the next few decades, most of the states, except those on the East Coast, adopted what came to be known as the Field Code. The Field Code was a significant improvement over common-law systems of procedure. However, the code required that the complaint contain "a plain and concise statement of the facts constituting plaintiff's cause of action," and used the pleading as a way of narrowing and defining the dispute rather than as a general means of initiating a civil action.

Over time, however, CODE PLEADING became very technical and required the pleader to set forth the facts underlying and demonstrating the existence of the cause of action. The pleading of ultimate facts was necessary, while the inclusion of evidentiary facts and conclusions of law was improper. Judges and attorneys found it difficult, if not impossible, to draw meaningful and consistent distinctions among these three terms. With no clear dividing line between a fact that demonstrated a cause of action and one that introduced specific evidence, courts made formal and often ARBITRARY decisions that were unrelated to the merits of the case. Courts demanded a high degree of specificity and bound the parties to prove the ultimate facts alleged or lose the lawsuit. This requirement was particularly harsh because it forced a party to allege detailed facts early in the case when there was still uncertainty over what facts had occurred.

By the 1930s legal commentators agreed that the need to plead ultimate facts was hindering the cause of justice. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which were adopted in 1938, eliminated the ultimate fact requirement and changed the philosophy behind the plaintiff's complaint and the defendant's answer. In place of ultimate facts, rule 8 (a) provides that the complaint shall contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Likewise, the defendant "shall state in short and plain terms" the defenses to the plaintiff's complaint. The rules do not require that only facts be alleged. Most states have adopted the federal rules in whole or in part, and the need to state ultimate facts in a pleading is no longer of great importance.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Tonnage tax to Umpire