Change in Florida law counts as victory to curb lawsuit abuse

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Fleets and insurers are using compelling evidence from video event recorders to minimize litigation expenses.
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Motor carriers, in cooperation with state and national trucking associations, are trying to curb lawsuit abuse. At this point, they’ll take even small victories to help keep insurance premiums at bay.

One recent victory came in Florida and will allow trial judges to weigh compelling, reliable evidence from video event recorders to issue summary judgements.

Video event recorders ushered in a new era of risk management when fleets started to use the technology more than 20 years ago. By now, the legal advantages of using objective video are well documented.

Video evidence is often so compelling that legal teams for motor carriers and insurers are minimizing litigation expenses by successfully filing pre-trial motions for summary judgements.

According to federal law, to succeed in a motion for summary judgment, a movant must show 1) that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, and 2) that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The supermajority of states follow this federal rule, although some apply a minority rule called a Scintilla of Evidence.

Florida developed a reputation as a “Judicial Hellhole” because of, among other things, its draconian summary judgment standard increasing opportunity for nuclear verdicts, said J.W. Taylor, owner of Taylor & Associates, a transportation-focused law firm based in Winter Haven, Florida.

“Historically, getting a summary judgement in Florida is really hard to do,” he said.

The Florida standard tied the hands of trial judges. When presented with a summary judgement motion, trial judges had no choice but deny the motion if evidence is presented that raises even the slightest doubt of any material fact.

Taylor and his associate John Marchione provided CCJ with a summary of a recent case settled by the Florida Supreme Court that awarded a victory to motor carriers who have video evidence when filing summary judgements.

Weighing the evidence

On Jan. 17, 2017, truck driver Samuel Rosario was eastbound in the center of a three-lane highway in Osceola County, Florida. He brought his Freightliner truck to a gradual stop at a red light and was struck from behind by a pickup driven by Jon Lopez, who was killed in the accident.

The Freightliner was equipped with a forward-facing dashboard camera. Armed with the video, the defendants, Rosario and the fleet he worked for, Wilsonart, moved for summary judgment and for a dismissal of the claims made by the plaintiff, the decedent Lopez’s estate.

In response, the estate of Lopez presented the deposition of a witness to the collision and expert testimony, who both testified that the Freightliner suddenly changed lanes just prior to impact, swerving from the center lane to the left lane.

J.W. TaylorJ.W. Taylor, owner of Taylor & Associates, said rule changes in Florida will allow trial judges to rely on objective video evidence.The video flatly contradicted the witness’ testimony and proved that Rosario had not been negligent. He never left his lane. As such, Lopez should have been presumed negligent under Florida law and the sole cause of the collision.

Notwithstanding the video, Lopez’s estate opposed the summary judgment motion relying on the testimonies that technically created an issue of fact because they contradicted what was plain on the video. The plaintiff made no claim and possessed no evidence calling the authenticity of the dashcam video into question, however.

The trial judge found the dashcam video “compelling” and granted summary judgment in favor of Rosario and Wilsonart because it “blatantly contradicted” the plaintiff’s submission.

On appeal, Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeals (DCA) was constrained by Florida’s summary judgment standard. The court reversed the dismissal, finding that the trial judge’s use of the admittedly compelling video to negate the plaintiff’s evidence amounted to improper weighing of competing evidence on material facts.

By weighing the competing evidence, the trial judge “improperly encroached into the jury’s province,” according to Florida’s Fifth DCA, and applied the looser federal standard instead of Florida’s much more restrictive standard.

Clearly bothered by the decision it felt compelled to make, Florida’s Fifth DCA brought the issue to the Florida Supreme Court as to whether video evidence can be used to negate or refute any conflicting evidence.

The Florida Supreme Court accepted the Fifth DCA’s invitation to review. In the case opinion that followed, the Florida Supreme Court announced that, via its rule making procedure, it was leaving its rigid summary judgment standard behind and, in recognition of technological evidence becoming more prevalent and commonsense, adopting the federal summary judgment standard.

The amended rule takes effect on May 1, 2021. The changes to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510 adopted by the Florida Supreme Court in Wilsonart “are a victory for fairness, efficiency, and common sense,” Taylor said.

With Florida’s adoption of the federal summary judgment standard, “now trial judges can participate in this reliance on objective video evidence, bringing at least some sorely needed tort reform to Florida,” he said. “Florida has left its old summary judgment standard in 2020, where all bad things belong.”