Coming Attractions: Florida Changes Its Summary Judgment Standard
By Paul V. Esposito
Back when we could still go to movies, getting there early was advisable. It allowed time to get popcorn, candy, a drink, and then find a good seat before the previews started. Hollywood’s teasers, previews let us know what’s heading our way.
Without the Hollywood style, the legal system also gives advance notice of what’s coming. In Florida, it’s a big change governing summary judgment motions. Coincidentally, the change arose out of a case involving a video. Wilsonart, LLC v. Lopez, 2020 Fla. LEXIS 2144.
Samuel Rosario was driving his freightliner in the center lane of a three-lane road. As Rosario prepared to stop at a light, Jon Lopez’s pickup struck the rear of Rosario’s truck, pushing it into a vehicle. Lopez died from injuries sustained.
Lopez’s estate brought suit. A witness testified that Rosario was partially in the right lane and suddenly swerved prior to the accident from the center lane to the left lane. But Rosario’s dash-cam showed that he was in the center lane and gradually stopping when an impact forced his truck to veer left and strike a car in front of it.
Based on the video, the trial court granted summary judgment to Rosario. Though finding the video evidence compelling, the court of appeal reversed because the trial court improperly weighed competing evidence. But it certified to the Supreme Court a question as to whether the summary judgment standard should be modified where unaltered video evidence completely refutes an opponent’s story.
The Supreme Court answered “no” for purposes of the case. But it announced a change to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510. Effective May 1, 2021, the rule reads that Florida courts must apply “the federal summary judgment standard articulated in Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986); and Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986).” Under current Florida case law, summary judgment must be denied if a record raises “the slightest doubt that material issues could be present.” But under the adopted federal standard, “[w]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial.’” If a record so blatantly contradicts a party’s story that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not accept it.
The order amending Rule 1.510 elaborated on the Supreme Court’s rationale. The goals of the federal and Florida rules are identical: to eliminate meaningless disputes and so provide a just, speedy, and inexpensive resolution of cases. The language of the two rules is substantively the same. But Florida courts have not applied the Florida rule like the federal rule. Unlike the federal courts, Florida courts have not recognized the similarity between motions for directed verdict and motions for summary judgment. The amended order establishes that the inquiry under each motion should be the same.
The amendment also changes the burden of persuasion. In Florida, a movant for summary judgment will no longer need to conclusively disprove an opponent’s case. If the parties had ample time for discovery, a non-movant should be able to offer evidence on its elements of proof—and so create a genuine issue of fact. If a non-movant fails, the moving party should not be forced to disprove what a non-movant cannot prove.
The amendment also requires that a non-movant’s story must have enough meat on the bone to warrant a trial. Evidence that is merely colorable and not significantly probative will not suffice. There must be more than a “metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.”
Learning Point: The new rule makes Florida the 39th state to adopt the federal summary judgment standard. And though the rule is technically still in the comment stage, a reversion back to the old standard is unlikely. The amended rule should provide welcome relief from Florida’s overly-strict standard. It will better serve the goal of improving the efficiency of the courts and reducing the expense of litigation. While the court system still encourages trials, the amended rule will discourage needless ones. Everyone will benefit. This attraction can’t come soon enough.