On December 31, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court prospectively amended Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510(c), adopting the federal summary judgment standard. The Florida Supreme Court stated that, “[t]hrough this amendment, we align Florida’s summary judgment standard with that of the federal courts and of the supermajority of states that have already adopted the federal summary judgment standard.”[1] After an opportunity for public comment, the amendment will become effective May 1, 2021.[2]

What is the Underlying Wilsonart Case About?

The case that precipitated the amendment to Florida’s summary judgment standard was Wilsonart, LLC, et al. v. Lopez, in which the Florida Supreme Court reviewed a trial court’s decision in a fatal rear-end automobile accident case.[3] In Wilsonart, the trial court granted summary judgment for the defendants, reasoning that the eyewitness’s testimony and the plaintiff’s expert’s opinion were so blatantly contradicted by video evidence that they could not create a genuine issue of material fact.

Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal (“Fifth DCA”) reversed the trial court’s decision and 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 the record raises the slightest doubt that material issues could be present.”[4] The Fifth DCA then certified a question of great public importance to the Florida Supreme Court: whether clear video evidence that completely negates eyewitness testimony should be an exception to the summary judgment rule in Florida.[5]

In accepting review of the case, the Florida Supreme Court sua sponte requested that the parties brief the question of whether Florida should adopt the federal summary judgment standard.[6] After receiving briefs from both parties and ten amicus curiae, the Florida Supreme Court heard oral argument on October 8, 2020.

Ultimately, the Florida Supreme Court chose not to amend Florida’s summary judgment standard through its Wilsonart opinion, but rather opted to enact the change through a prospective rule amendment.[7] As to the Fifth DCA’s certified question, the Florida Supreme Court held that they saw “no reason to adopt an ad hoc video evidence exception to the existing summary judgment standard on the eve of that amendment.”[8] Thus, the Florida Supreme Court answered “no” to the certified question and approved the result in the Fifth DCA.[9]

The Summary Judgment Rule Amendment

While Florida's prior summary judgment rule is "materially indistinguishable" from the federal rule in a textual sense, it does not align with the actual federal standard.[10]

The federal summary judgment standard is set forth in a series of United States Supreme Court cases—Celotex Corp. v. Catrett,[11] Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.,[12]  and Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp.,[13]—known as the “Celotex Trilogy.” The Florida Supreme Court pointed out “three particularly consequential differences” between the prior Florida and federal summary judgment standards.[14] First, the United States Supreme Court cases explain that the same standard should be applied for a summary judgment motion (made before trial) and a directed verdict motion (made during trial). That standard is "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.”[15]

Second, in contrast to the prior Florida standard, under the federal standard, 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.[16] Under the prior Florida summary judgment standard, the party seeking summary judgment has the “burden of proving a negative, i.e., the non-existence of a genuine issue of material fact,” and must do so “conclusively,” so that “[t]he proof must be such as to overcome all reasonable inferences which may be drawn in favor of the opposing party.”[17] Thus, the moving party will no longer be required to conclusively disprove or negate the nonmovant’s case theory in Florida state courts.

Third, adopting the federal summary judgment standard will narrow the Florida courts’ previous “expansive understanding of what constitutes a genuine (i.e., triable) issue of material fact.”[18] The federal test is whether “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.”[19]

The Florida Supreme Court expressed that its goal in adopting the federal summary judgment standard is “to improve the fairness and efficiency of Florida’s civil justice system, to relieve parties from the expense and burdens of meritless litigation, and to save the work of juries for cases where there are real factual disputes that need resolution.”[20] The prior Florida and federal summary judgment standards share the same broad purpose: “to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action.”[21] Thus, the Florida Supreme Court determined that “[t]he federal summary judgment standard better comports with the current text and purpose of rule 1.510 and that adopting that standard is in the best interest of our state.”[22]

The Florida Supreme Court asked for comments on “whether the effective implementation of the amendment requires any additional, ancillary amendments to rule 1.510,” whether additional portions of Federal Rule 56 should be added to Rule 1.510, and whether “rule 1.510 should be replaced in its entirety with the text of Rule 56.”[23] Comments were due on or before March 2, 2021, with an opportunity for commenters to participate in oral argument.

 

Note from the Editor:

The Federalist Society takes no positions on particular legal and public policy matters. Any expressions of opinion are those of the authors. We do invite responses from our readers. To join the debate, please email us at info@fedsoc.org.


[1] In re Amendments to Fla. Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510., No. SC20-1490, 2020 WL 7778179, at *1 (Fla. December 31, 2020).

[2] Id.

[3] No. SC19-1336 (Fla. Dec. 31, 2020).

[4] See Lopez v. Wilsonart, LLC, 275 So. 3d 831, 833 (Fla. 5th DCA 2019) (emphasis added) (citation omitted), review granted, No. SC19-1336, 2019 WL 5188546 (Fla. Oct. 15, 2019), and approved, No. SC19-1336, 2020 WL 7778226 (Fla. Dec. 31, 2020).

[5] See Lopez, 275 So. 3d at 834.

[6] Wilsonart, LLC v. Lopez, No. SC19-1336, 2019 WL 5188546, at *1 (Fla. Oct. 15, 2019).

[7] Wilsonart, LLC v. Lopez, No. SC19-1336, 2020 WL 7778226, at *2 (Fla. Dec. 31, 2020).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] See In re Amendments to Fla. Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510., at *1.

[11] 477 U.S. 317 (1986).

[12] 477 U.S. 242 (1986).

[13] 475 U.S. 574 (1986).

[14] In re Amendments to Fla. Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510., at *1.

[15] Id. (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at251-52).

[16] Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

[17] Holl v. Talcott, 191 So. 2d 40, 43 (Fla. 1966) (citations omitted).

[18] In re Amendments to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510., at *2.

[19] Id. (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248)).

[20] Id.

[21] Id. at *1 (citing Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.010).

[22] Id. at *2.

[23] Id. at *3.