On October 15, 2019, the Florida 5th District Court of Appeals (“DCA”) certified a question for the state’s Supreme Court that it viewed as one of great public importance: Should the court grant summary judgment when the moving party’s video evidence completely refutes conflicting evidence presented by the non-moving party? The court recognized that technological advancements are increasing the likelihood that insurance companies and lawyers will use video evidence more frequently in both trial and pre-trial proceedings. So, is it possible to really win a summary judgment motion in Florida with video evidence? It seems unlikely based on the court’s decision in Lopez v. Wilsonart, LLC (2019) 275 So.3d 831. It all depends what is on the video.
The context in which this question arose was a motor vehicle accident on a Florida highway involving a large truck that was rear ended and pushed into another vehicle. The rear most vehicle’s driver claimed the truck had suddenly changed lanes in front of him. However, dashcam video from the truck showed the truck gradually slowing down before experiencing a large rear-end impact, causing the truck to veer left into another vehicle. The trucking company moved for summary judgment. The decedent’s estate in opposition offered evidence of an eyewitness who said the truck had suddenly changed lanes. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the trucking company, indicating the video completely negated the plaintiff estate’s eyewitness. An appeal followed, and the DCA reversed the trial court because it thought the trial court encroached on the province of the jury by weighing the credibility of evidence in reaching its decision.
Florida’s summary judgment law requires the facts to be “so crystallized that nothing remains but questions of law.” The slightest doubt as to whether an issue of material facts exists must be resolved against the party seeking summary judgment. Only one questionably relevant decision in another Florida Supreme Court case, reviewing a suspension of a driver’s license, held that the court did not err in rejecting witness testimony refuted by video evidence. The Florida DCA currently seems unwilling to relax the state’s summary judgment standards. However, the fact that the Florida DCA has asked the Supreme Court to address this question may be a sign that Florida’s case law on summary judgments has morphed the law into something more restrictive than the Federal version of the law, or even the express words of Florida’s own Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510.
Why would video evidence be enough to win a summary judgment motion under the Federal Rules, and not under the current Florida state law on summary judgment? The question is more complicated than that because the federal standard is similar to the Florida standard, in that both require a “genuine” issue of material fact to defeat the motion. If one compares Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510 with Federal Rule 56, they are not so different in substance such that one would expect a summary judgment motion to be granted in a federal court, where it would be denied in a Florida court. So, if there are conflicting versions of events upon which video evidence is relevant, the issue for a summary judgment motion really becomes whether the dispute in the facts, given what is depicted on the video, is genuine, i.e. “reasonable.”
It will be interesting to see how the Florida Supreme Court resolves the questions certified, and whether it will result in any change to Florida’s summary judgment standard. The philosophical concerns center less around technology and more about under what circumstances our legal system allows certain factual disputes to either be tried to a jury of our peers, or disposed of summarily without a trial. Only the genuine or reasonable disputes survive.
Video evidence may, like any other evidence, be available to support or oppose a summary judgment motion. The key is what is contained or depicted on the video, compared with the nature of the factual dispute, and how effectively what is depicted on the video disposes of any genuine or reasonable dispute in the factual issue. Evaluate the factual value of the video. If the video blatantly exposes a lie, an untruth, or an inconsistency, summary judgment is more likely to be granted. Video evidence which simply adds one more piece to the factual puzzle, as is more frequently the case, may not be enough. Ask witnesses who are deposed if they agree that the video shows what you are arguing it shows. Have plaintiffs admit in written discovery that the video shows what you are arguing it shows. Using video evidence may prove to be more about good claims handling, good lawyering and marshalling of evidence, and less about technology.
- Wilsonart, LLC v. Lopez (October 2019) WL 5188549
- Lopez v. Wilsonart, LLC (2019) 275 So.3d 831
- Federal Rule of Civil Procedure, Rule 56
- Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.510
- Law 360 Tort Report: Personal Injury & Med Mal News, https://www.law360.com/articles/1220641/law360-s-tort-report-personal-injury-med-mal-news-in-brief