Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Florida Supreme Court adopts federal standard for summary judgment effective May 1, 2021

The Florida Supreme Court on Dec. 31, 2020, adopted the summary judgment standard applicable in the federal courts and in the supermajority of states. According to the Court, adoption of this standard will "improve the fairness and efficiency of Florida's civil justice system ... relieve parties from the expense and burdens of meritless litigation, and ... save the work of juries for cases where there are real factual disputes that need resolution."


The Court's decision grew out of a case involving a 2017 car accident in which a man, Jon Lopez, died. See Wilsonart, LLC v. Lopez, Case No. SC19-1336 (Fla. Dec. 31, 2020). In the trial court, defendant Wilsonart presented clear video evidence from a dashboard camera showing that its truck driver had not caused the accident, and moved for summary judgment on the basis that the video indisputably proved the defendant was not negligent. In response, Lopez's estate produced the testimony of an eyewitness who claimed, notwithstanding the video, that the defendant's truck suddenly changed lanes just prior to impact and caused the crash.

The trial court granted summary judgment in light of the defendant's clear video evidence. But on appeal, the Fifth District Court of Appeal felt compelled by Florida's existing summary judgment standard to reverse the trial court's grant of summary judgment due to the estate's conflicting evidence. The Fifth District then certified a question to the Florida Supreme Court as one of great public importance, specifically whether clear video evidence that completely negates eyewitness testimony should be an exception to the summary judgment rule in Florida.

Supreme Court Decision

The Florida Supreme Court accepted the case and broadened the issue on review, inviting all interested parties to address whether Florida should adopt the same summary judgment standard used by the federal courts. Under that standard, the party moving for summary judgment is not required to overcome the near impossible burden of fully negating the non-movant's claim. This allows for more just, speedy and inexpensive determinations of actions. Instead of requiring a defendant to prove an absence of evidence, the federal standard requires the plaintiff to show that it has evidence that would be sufficient for a jury to find in the plaintiff's favor.

After hearing from numerous amici and holding oral argument, the Court decided to adopt the federal summary judgment standard. The Court did not adopt the new standard in the Wilsonart case, however, instead electing to make that change through a prospective rule amendment, which will take effect on May 1, 2021. See In re Amends. to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510, No. SC20-1490 (Fla. Dec. 31, 2020). As a result, the Fifth District's reversal of summary judgment in the defendant's favor stands.

Justice Jorge Labarga concurred in part and dissented in part, agreeing that the Fifth District's decision should remain intact but strongly disagreeing that the case warranted reconsideration of Florida's summary judgment standard.