Florida Adopts Less Stringent Summary Judgment Standard
Tampa, Fla. (January 8, 2021) - On New Year’s Eve, Florida’s Supreme Court issued an amendment to essentially apply the federal summary judgment standard to cases in Florida state courts starting on May 1, 2021. See In Re: Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, No. SC20 1490 (Fla. Dec. 31, 2020) (per curiam). This change brings Florida in line with the majority of states (38).
Summary judgment is easier to obtain under the federal standard. A moving party need only show that the opposing party lacks the evidence to support its case at trial. Under the soon-to-be obsolete Florida standard, however, moving parties had to entirely “disprove the nonmovant’s theory of the case in order to eliminate any issue of fact." See id. at 3. The nonmoving party could defeat a summary judgment motion by showing that there was a slight doubt on any material fact. See id. at 4-5.
This change is good news for defendants and their insurers. With summary judgment easier to obtain, weak claims can be defended prior to trial. Claims may be resolved more quickly and economically. The threat of summary judgment also gives defendants powerful leverage in settlement discussions. The shift may also reduce the backlog of cases accumulated during the suspension of jury trials over the past summer.
A. Florida’s Previous Summary Judgment Standard
Florida's summary judgment standard was notoriously restrictive. Summary judgment could not be granted if there was even the slightest dispute on any material fact. See, e.g., Jones v. Dirs. Guild of Am., Inc., 584 So. 2d 1057, 1059 (Fla. 1st DCA 1991). The moving party had to show the facts were so clear that “nothing remain[ed] but questions of law.” Hervey v. Alfonso, 650 So. 2d 644, 646 (Fla. 2d DCA 1995) (citing Humphrys v. Jarrell, 104 So. 2d 404 (Fla. 2d DCA 1958)). This meant summary judgment was nearly impossible to win. Because the nonmoving party could produce the slightest shred of evidence and defeat summary judgment, even meritless claims could reach trial.
B. The Federal Summary Judgment Standard
The federal summary judgment standard was articulated in a trilogy of United States Supreme Court cases in 1986. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986); see also Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986). The Celotex trilogy established that summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party shows that the opposing party does not have enough evidence to establish the elements of its claims. If no reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party, summary judgment should be awarded.
C. Florida’s Change
Florida’s shift to this standard was prompted by a certified question from the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Lopez v. Wilsonart, LLC, 275 So. 3d 181 (Fla. 5th DCA 2019). Wilsonart concerned a fatal motor vehicle accident. Jon Lopez rear-ended a freightliner driven by Samuel Rosario. See id. at 831. His estate sued both Mr. Rosario and his employer, Wilsonart, LLC. See id. Dashcam video from Mr. Rosario’s truck showed that he had been driving in the center lane, gradually stopping at a red light, and then hit from behind. See id. at 832. This contradicted the plaintiff’s allegations that Mr. Rosario had suddenly swerved in front of Mr. Lopez. See id. at 833. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Rosario and Wilsonart based on the video evidence. See id.
On appeal, the issue was whether the court could grant summary judgment based on the video, or whether it must let the jury weigh the evidence. See id. The Fifth District Court of Appeal held that the latter was true, finding that the trial court had improperly weighed competing evidence on material facts. See id. at 833-834. It reversed the trial court's decision. See id. Recognizing the strength of video evidence, however, it certified the question for the Florida Supreme Court to determine whether courts could make an exception and grant summary judgment where video evidence completely negates the nonmoving party’s claims. See id. at 834.
The Florida Supreme Court viewed this question as raising a larger issue — whether Florida’s summary judgment standard had an “unreasonable definition of what constitutes a ‘genuine issue’ in need of resolution by a jury.” Wilsonart, LLC v. Lopez, No. SC19-1336, 2020 Fla. LEXIS 2144, at *6-*7 (Dec. 31, 2020). It asked the parties to brief whether Florida should adopt the more permissive federal summary judgment standard. See id. The court was convinced and held that Florida would. See id. at *7. Simultaneously with this ruling, the court released amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510 to bring the Rule in line with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. In Re: Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510, No. SC20-1490 (Fla. Dec. 31, 2020) (per curiam).
D. Effect on Florida Jurisprudence
The Florida Supreme Court explained that the amendments to Rule 1.1510 will have three major impacts:
- Most importantly, the requirement that the moving party must negate or otherwise conclusively “disprove the nonmovant’s theory of the case in order to eliminate any issue of fact” is abandoned. See id. at 3. Instead, the movant will prevail if the nonmoving party cannot show that it will have sufficient evidence to establish the elements of its claims. See id. 3–4.
- There will be a new definition of what constitutes a genuine issue of material fact. The old Florida definition – the “slightest doubt” – is now replaced with the federal definition – whether a “reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party”. See id. at 4–5; see also Jones v. Dirs. Guild of Am., Inc., 584 So. 2d 1057, 1059 (Fla. 1st DCA 1991) (discussing “slightest doubt” definition).
- Courts now must recognize the similarity between a motion for directed verdict and a motion for summary judgment. See id. at 2–3. In both contexts, the inquiry will now be identical. The court will consider “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id.
The importance of the Florida Supreme Court’s adoption of the federal summary judgment standard is tremendous. Skilled defense counsel may be able to dispose of weak or meritless claims more quickly and economically than before.
John A. Rine, Managing Partner - Tampa, FL
Sarah Hock, Associate