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Biz Groups Urge Fla. To Adopt Fed. Summary Judgment Rule

Law360 (December 16, 2019, 8:42 PM EST) -- The Product Liability Advisory Council on Monday joined a chorus of business groups weighing in on a case over a fatal truck accident and urging the Florida Supreme Court to adopt the federal summary judgment standard that they say will bring the state in line with the rest of the country and curb unnecessary litigation.

In an amicus brief, PLAC, which represents American and international product manufacturers, said bringing the standard in line with the majority of states that have adopted the federal standard would promote judicial economy and predictability and reduce forum-shopping.

The issue is before the state Supreme Court in a suit against trucking company Wilsonart LLC that claims its driver was negligent and caused the death of another motorist. A dashboard camera video was not enough under Florida's current standard to refute the plaintiff's claims and end the suit.

"Florida's summary judgment rule is not serving its intended purpose of eliminating claims where there is no genuine issue of material fact because the current standard requires a movant to meet a virtually impossible burden of proving a negative," PLAC said. "Indeed, the current interpretation encourages claimants 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 regardless of the merits."

With its brief, PLAC joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Defense Lawyers Association, the Florida Justice Reform Institute and the Florida Trucking Association, all of which asked the court on Friday to adopt what's known as the "Celotex Trilogy," a series of three U.S. Supreme Court cases issued in 1986 that established the federal standard for summary judgment.

Forty-one states so far have adopted the federal standard or cited it favorably, according to FDLA, which argued that changing the standard in Florida would decrease bad-faith litigation across the state.

In the current case, Wilsonart and its driver, Samuel Rosario, presented video taken from the dashboard of Rosario's tractor-trailer in support of their motion for summary judgment. They said it proved Rosario's testimony that he was driving straight in the middle of three lanes and had slowed almost to a stop at a red light when the pickup truck of Jon Lopez, who died in the crash, slammed into the back of his truck, pushing it into another vehicle in the left lane.

In response, Lopez's family presented a deposition of eyewitness David Mendez, who testified that Rosario had suddenly changed from the center to the left lane right before the impact. Lopez's family also presented an affidavit from an expert who determined that part of the tractor-trailer was in the right lane when the collision happened.

The trial court judge granted summary judgment and concluded that the video "blatantly contradicts the eye witness testimony and the opinion of plaintiff's expert."

On appeal, the Fifth District reached a similar conclusion but said the trial judge was wrong to evaluate the credibility of a witness or weigh the evidence while ruling on a motion for summary judgment. Under Florida's current standards, if there is the slightest doubt over material issues of fact, then they must be resolved and summary judgment must be denied, the appeals court said.

"By granting final summary judgment, the trial court completely negated the estate's evidence based on the perceived strength of appellees' video evidence and, thus, improperly encroached into the jury's province," the panel said. "As a result, we are compelled to reverse the final summary judgment and remand for further proceedings."

But the Fifth District certified a question of public importance, asking the state's highest court to weigh in on the issue.

Counsel for Lopez’s estate declined to comment. Counsel for Wilsonart couldn’t be reached for comment.

Wilsonart and Rosario are represented by Sean M. McDonough, Jacqueline M. Bertelsen and Gary Spahn of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP.

Lopez's estate is represented by Tony Bennett of Hicks and Motto PA.

PLAC is represented by Wendy F. Lumish, Alina Alonso Rodriguez and Daniel A. Rock of Bowman & Brooke LLP.

FDLA is represented by Kansas R. Gooden of Boyd & Jenerette PA and Elaine D. Walter of Boyd Richard Parker & Colonnelli PL.

FJRI and the Florida Trucking Association are represented by Edward G. Guedes and Eric S. Kay of Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman PL and in-house counsel William W. Large.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Florida Chamber of Commerce are represented by George N. Meros, Kevin W. Cox, Tiffany A. Roddenberry and Tara R. Price of Holland & Knight LLP.

The case is Wilsonart LLC et al. v. Lopez, case number SC19-1336, in the Supreme Court of Florida.

--Additional reporting by Nathan Hale. Editing by Jack Karp.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that the parties declined to comment or were not available.