Update May 2021: The Florida Supreme Court has adopted the Federal Summary Judgment Standard as of May 1, 2021. Click to read my new article about the amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510.
On October 8th, the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral argument on the case of Wilsonart, LLC v. Lopez. In accepting review of the case, the Florida Supreme Court requested that the parties brief the question of whether Florida should adopt the Federal summary judgment standard.
Under Florida’s current summary judgment standard, the party moving for summary judgment must conclusively show that the opposing party cannot possibly prove its case at trial. Thus, summary judgment must be if the evidence suggests the possibility of any genuine issue of material fact, or if the record raises even the slightest doubt that an issue might exist. Under the Federal summary judgment standard, the party with the burden of proof at trial must establish that the evidence is sufficient to create an issue for the jury.
These issues have been hotly debated in the parties’ briefs. A legion of amicus briefs have also been filed to weigh in on the issue. This article will preview the upcoming oral argument, and discuss the issues raised in this potentially groundbreaking case.
What Is The Case About?
The underlying case involved a summary judgment in an automobile accident case. A driver of a pickup truck died after rear-ending a semi truck. A dashboard camera in the semi clearly showed that, in the moments leading up to the collision, the semi remained straight in its lane, and came to a gradual stop at a red light. The video shows that the semi was impacted only after it came to a complete stop.
However, an eyewitness to the collision testified that he saw the semi truck swerve suddenly before being struck by the pickup truck. The plaintiff’s expert also concluded that the semi truck driver was negligent based upon the eyewitness’s testimony.
The trial court granted summary judgment, reasoning that the eyewitness’s testimony and the plaintiff’s expert’s opinion were so blatantly contradicted by the video that they could not create a genuine issue of material fact on summary judgment.
The summary judgment was reversed on appeal. The Fifth District held that even though the video was compelling and directly contradicted the eyewitness testimony, Florida’s summary judgment standard requires the motion to be denied if there is any possible dispute of fact, no matter how minimal.
What Is The Federal Summary Judgment Standard?
The Federal Summary Judgment standard is set forth in a series of United States Supreme Court cases known as the “Celotex Trilogy.” These cases held that the same standard should be applied on summary judgment and directed verdict. Thus, after adequate time for discovery, a summary judgment motion requires the party with the burden of proof at trial to make a showing that sufficient evidence exists to support all of the essential elements of the cause of action. The “clear and convincing” evidentiary standard applies on summary judgment, because it is the same burden of proof that would apply at trial.
Thus, the purpose of a summary judgment motion is to look beyond the pleadings to determine whether the plausible evidence suggests that there is a genuine need for a trial. The party opposing a summary motion does not meet its burden by merely suggesting that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.
What Are The Arguments In Favor Of The Federal Standard?
Advocates of the Federal summary judgment standard argue that judicial efficiency will be increased by applying the same burden of proof to summary judgment motions as to directed verdict motions. The Federal standard is thus a practical tool to resolve cases before costly trials. Thus, trials will proceed only where necessary to settle a genuine issue of fact.
A stricter summary judgment standard would discourage parties from filing cases based on minimal or dubious evidence. The Federal summary judgment standard also reduces the potential for trial expenses and judicial resources to be wasted on futile jury trials that are ultimately disposed of by a motion for directed verdict.
Also, adopting the Federal standard in Florida would reduce disparities in the outcomes of cases in state and federal courts, and would discourage forum shopping. Because as many as 41 states have adopted the Federal standard, or cite to it favorably, adopting the Federal standard would promote consistency in procedure from state to state.
What Are The Main Criticisms Against The Florida Standard?
Critics argue that the burden under the Florida summary judgment standard is nearly impossible to meet because it requires the moving party to prove a negative: the non-existence of a genuine issue of material fact.
Critics also argue that the Florida standard causes otherwise meritless cases to languish on court dockets, only to be tried in futility before a jury before being disposed of by directed verdict. This causes significant costs to the parties, and unnecessarily consumes valuable judicial resources.
What Are The Arguments Against Adopting The Federal Summary Judgment Standard?
The predominant policy argument in favor of maintaining Florida’s summary judgment standard is that the Florida standard safeguards a party’s right to a trial by jury. There is concern that adopting the Federal standard allows trial judges too much leeway to weigh and make inferences from the evidence, invading the providence of the jury.
However, the plaintiff and its amici in this case have largely chosen to avoid making a detailed argument in favor of the Florida standard. Rather, they argue that the current interpretation of the Florida standard is supported by the text of the rule, as well as the early caselaw interpreting the Federal summary judgment rule. Instead, the reasoning of the “Celotex Trilogy” is founded on 1980’s amendments to the Federal summary judgment rule, leading to a divergence of meaning between the texts of the Florida and Federal rules.
The plaintiff and its amici therefore argue that any change in Florida’s summary judgment standard should be made though the Florida Supreme Court’s rulemaking process, rather than under the facts of this case.
It appears likely that the Florida Supreme Court will make a move towards adopting the Federal summary judgment standard in this case. In recent years, the Florida Supreme Court has not been shy about receding from precedent that it believes was incorrectly decided. Furthermore, the Florida Supreme Court recently demonstrated its willingness to harmonize Florida procedures with Federal rules in adopting the Daubert rule of evidence.
Instead, the big unknown question will be whether the Supreme Court’s decision immediately adopts the “Celotex trilogy” for interpreting Florida’s summary judgment standards, or if the court determines that an amendment to the rules is required to modify Florida’s summary judgment standard.