Florida Record

Friday, February 21, 2020

Florida Bar's Business Law Section urges change in summary judgment standard

State Court

By Michael Carroll | Jan 17, 2020

General court 01

TALLAHASSEE - Calls for the Florida Supreme Court to adopt the federal standard for issuing summary judgments in civil cases has intensified in recent weeks, with attorney and business groups arguing that such a change will curb meritless lawsuits.

The Business Law Section of the Florida Bar in late December filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in the case of Wilsonart LLC et al. v. Lopez. The Business Law Section concluded that the current summary judgment standard allows petitioners to avoid dismissals of legal claims that simply cannot be proved. And this, in turn, promotes needless litigation, the amicus brief states.

“(The Celotex standard for summary judgments) or something similar is the standard in the federal court, 38 states and the District of Columbia,” Manuel Farach, who co-authored the Business Law Section’s Dec. 27 amicus brief to the high court, told the Florida Record. “It’s a more fair standard because it forces parties to prove just a minimum of their particular claim or defense.”


Ousley

Although the Business Law Section weighed in on the summary judgment debate, it did not take sides in the Wilsonart LLC case. In that lawsuit, the trucking company was accused of negligence because its driver was involved in a collision that killed another motorist.

The plaintiff in the original case pointed to witness testimony that the truck changed lanes abruptly prior to the resulting fatal collision, creating a hazardous situation. But the truck’s dashboard video camera indicated that the truck moved straight ahead and gradually slowed down at an intersection.

Though a trial judge granted summary judgment in favor of the company, the 5th District Court of Appeal said the trial court erred in its judgment of conflicting evidence under the state’s current summary judgment standard, which is based on the case Holl v. Talcott.

“A standard which permits a non-movant (the party not making the motion) to escape dismissal of claims that can never be proven at trial makes no sense and …  leads to needless litigation,” the Business Law Section’s amicus brief says. “A standard which gets rid of bad claims but permits good claims to proceed to trial frees up the court system and benefits all of Florida’s citizens.”

It’s uncommon for the Business Law Section to file an amicus brief in such a case, according to Farach.

“It’s unusual,” he said. “I’ve been involved in the Business Law Section for 30 years or so. If my memory is correct, this is the third time they’ve done this.”

But the issue before the high court is one that has a wide-ranging impact on the state’s legal system, Farach said.

“It’s a fundamental change in how disputes are resolved,” he said, adding that summary judgment decisions can cut both ways – favoring plaintiffs as well as the defense side.

Business groups have also come down in favor of the adoption of the Celotex standard for summary judgments.

“The Florida Chamber believes that Florida’s current summary judgment standard is unworkable and forces parties to prove a negative – that there are not genuine issues of a material fact that could change the outcome of the case,” Edie Ousley, the chamber’s spokeswoman, said in an email to the Florida Record. “Therefore, the Florida Chamber’s Litigation and Regulatory Reform Center has filed an amicus brief to move Florida to align with the federal standard for granting summary judgment.”

Similar arguments have been made by the Virginia-based Product Liability Advisory Council (PLAC), which filed an amicus brief with the Florida Supreme Court last month.

Kimberly Condon, PLAC’s executive director, said Florida’s current summary judgment rule has failed in its intended purpose: filtering out legal claims that contain no legitimate dispute for a jury to resolve. The current process calls on defendants to meet an impossible burden – that is, disproving a plaintiff’s case – before summary judgment can be declared, according to Condon.

“Indeed, the current interpretation encourages plaintiffs to file lawsuits in Florida knowing that they are unlikely to be dismissed before trial, which ultimately places pressure on the defendant to settle such cases, rather than pay to go through trial, even if they are meritless,” she told the Florida Record in an email.

The federal Celotex standard, which is based on several U.S. Supreme Court decisions, will guard against such outcomes, Condon said.

“By bringing Florida in line with the federal courts and the majority of state courts, it will reduce the burden of meritless litigation on the Florida court system,” she said.

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