Florida Amends State Summary Judgment Rule To Match Federal Standard

The Florida Supreme Court has amended the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure to adopt the federal summary judgment standard. The new standard is expected to make it easier for judges to grant summary judgment motions and should improve the fairness and efficiency of Florida’s civil justice system.

The Supreme Court approved the amendments, which were made on its own motion, in an opinion issued December 31, 2020. See In re Amends. to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510, No. SC20-1490 (Fla. Dec. 31, 2020).  While the changes are effective May 1, 2021, the Court invited comments from the Rules of Civil Procedure Committee and the public.

On the same day, the Court released a related decision in Wilsonart, LLC, et al. v. Miguel Lopez, etc., Case No. SC19-1336, (Fla. Dec 31, 2020), which addresses summary judgment procedure. The Court had requested briefing on whether it should address Florida’s summary judgment standards, but decided to make the change in a rules case.

In its per curiam rules opinion, the Court stated that although the Florida summary judgement rule (Rule 1.510) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 have similar language, they differ in effect. Cautioning that its “discussion is not intended to limit the scope of the rule amendment that we adopt today,” the court cited three reasons for its action: Florida courts don’t recognize the similarity between summary judgment and directed verdict motions; under Holl v. Talcott, 191 So. 2d 40 (Fla. 1966), the summary judgment mover has “conclusively ‘to disprove the nonmovant’s theory of the case in order to eliminate any issue of fact,’” which is much stricter than the federal standard; and Florida courts have an expansive interpretation of what constitutes a “genuine (i.e. triable) issue of fact”.

Ultimately, the court was “persuaded that the federal summary judgment standard better comports with the text and purpose of rule 1.510 and that adopting that standard is in the best interest of our state…our rules of civil procedure are meant ‘to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action….’ Yet Florida courts’ interpretation of our summary judgment rule has unnecessarily failed to contribute to that objective.”

The Wilsonart ruling involved a wrongful death case stemming from a fatal rear-end car crash. The decedent had crashed into a freightliner truck operated by Wilsonart, LLC, and died from his injuries.  Lopez’s estate brought suit against Wilsonart, arguing that its driver negligently operated the truck.  Wilsonart successfully moved for summary judgment in the trial court based on clear video evidence from the truck’s dashboard camera showing that Wilsonart’s driver had not negligently operated the truck..  In opposition, Lopez’s estate produced eyewitness testimony that the Wilsonart truck changed lanes suddenly just prior to impact. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants because video evidence from the front automobile’s dash camera appeared to refute the conflicting account.

The Fifth District Court of Appeal acknowledged the evidence but reversed the decision because the trial judge’s actions involved weighing competing evidence. The DCA certified a question to the Supreme Court as one of great public importance as to whether the state’s summary judgment rule should have an exception for video evidence that appeared to be unaltered and refuted any conflicting evidence .

In the end, the Supreme Court upheld the Fifth DCA ruling but said a new summary judgment motion could be filed with the trial court once the new rule takes effect.

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