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Florida Supreme Court Adopts Federal Summary Judgment Standard

Florida Supreme Court Adopts Federal Summary Judgment Standard

On December 31, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court decided to scrap the established state law standard for summary judgment in favor of adopting the more lenient federal standard articulated by the United States Supreme Court in the trilogy of cases of Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986), Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986), and Matsushita Electrical Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986).

Since the 1966 decision in Holl v Talcott, 191 So. 2d 40 (Fla. 1966), Florida courts have taken an expansive view of what constitutes a “genuine issue of material fact” sufficient to defeat summary judgment. A moving party is required to conclusively disprove the nonmoving party’s theory of the case in order to eliminate any issue of fact. Accordingly, the existence of any competent evidence creating an issue of fact, however credible or incredible, substantial or trivial, stops the inquiry and precludes summary judgment so long as the slightest doubt was raised. 

By contrast, the federal standard does not require the moving party to negate their opponent’s claim.  Instead, the movant’s burden may be discharged by showing that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case.  The United States Supreme Court has described the federal test to be “whether the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. If the evidence is merely colorable or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.”  Further, a party opposing summary judgment must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court following the federal standard should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.

The Florida Supreme Court’s decision to adopt the federal standard was announced on December 31, 2020 in Wilsonart, LLC v. Lopez, No. SC19-1336. That case arose from a fatal rear-end collision where video evidence from the front car’s dashboard camera appeared to refute the plaintiff’s version of events. The trial court granted summary judgment because the video demonstrated that the defendant’s driving was not negligent and directly contradicted the plaintiff’s opposition evidence. However, the appellate court felt compelled to reverse that decision under Florida’s established summary judgment standard because, “notwithstanding the strength of the video evidence, the trial court improperly weighed competing evidence on material facts.”

In grappling with questions relating to technological advancements and the likelihood of video and digital evidence being more frequently used in trial and pretrial proceedings, the Florida Supreme Court decided to completely rethink the standard for granting summary judgment. In so doing, the Court determined that Florida’s existing standard was flawed and adopted the more commonsense approach taken by federal courts. The Wilsonart Court specifically stated that the change was not designed to be limited to cases involving video evidence.  Rather, the change impacts all motions for summary judgment once the new rule goes into effect.

Therefore, on its own motion, the Court prospectively amended Rule 1.510 of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure which becomes effective May 1, 2021 at 12:01 a.m. in order to align Florida’s summary judgment standard with that of the federal courts. In adopting these amendments, Florida will be the thirty-ninth state to incorporate the federal summary judgment standard which most consider to be more rational and reasonable than that which Florida currently employs.

Though the textual changes to the rules appear minor, the jurisprudential shifts are dramatic. As of the effective date of the amendments, summary judgment motions in Florida will be more viable. Trial courts will no longer hold summary judgment motions to a higher standard than directed verdicts. The moving party will no longer bear the burden of disproving the nonmoving party’s theory of the case. And, most importantly, genuine issues of material fact will be limited to evidence that could convince a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party.