With the turn of a new year, the Florida Supreme Court is taking no time in ushering in a major new change in summary judgment jurisprudence. On December 31, 2020, the Court adopted the federal summary judgment standard, with the changes to go into effect on May 1, 2021. Summary judgment is generally appropriate where there is no genuine factual dispute and one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law without wasting resources on a full trial. The Court found it time to align Florida law with the federal summary judgment standard, which has been adopted by the overwhelming majority of states, with a goal to, among other things, improve the fairness and efficiency of Florida’s civil judicial process.
Why the Sudden Change in Summary Judgment?
The Court’s decision arose out of a case involving the 2017 death of Jon Lopez. See Wilsonart, LLC v. Lopez, Case No. SC19-1336 (Fla. Dec. 31, 2020). The defendant, Wilsonart, provided video footage from a dashboard camera that showed its truck driver was not responsible for the car accident and consequent death of Jon Lopez. The defendant moved for summary judgment since the evidence provided was indisputable. Lopez’s estate then provided an eyewitness who claimed that – despite the indisputable video evidence – defendant’s truck did cause the accident when it changed lanes at the last minute. The court properly granted summary judgment to the defendant, but the Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed due to conflicting evidence. In a certified question to the Florida Supreme Court, the Fifth District asked whether clear video evidence that completely negates eyewitness testimony should be an exception to the summary judgment rule in Florida. The certified question to the Court set up the opportunity to clarify and establish a summary judgment standard consistent with federal law. The Court answered the certified question in the negative and did not choose to adopt an exception to the existing standard, but adopted the federal summary judgment standard and suggested that defendants in Lopez seek summary judgment again when the new summary judgment rule becomes effective.
Major Changes to the Summary Judgment Standard
While Florida’s current summary judgment standard appears at first glance to be similar to the federal standard, practical application has historically shown that Florida’s standard was inconsistent and that Florida trial courts were reluctant to grant summary judgment. By adopting the federal summary judgment standard, the most significant changes will be:
- The moving party will no longer have to fully negate or disprove the nonmovant’s claim.
- Summary judgment will no longer yield to an expansive scope of what constitutes a genuine issue of material fact. Instead, nonmoving party must show the existence of evidence substantial and credible enough that a jury could return a verdict for the nonmovant.
Public Comment Period
The changes to the summary judgment standard are being advanced as a prospective amendment to Rule 1.510 of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure, 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). The Court is soliciting public comments on the new rule, which must be filed by March 2, 2021. For questions about this new rule, help with submitting comments, or questions about Florida’s civil judicial process, contact our office.
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