Trucking company’s dash cam case in Florida Supreme Court gains outside interest
DECEMBER 18, 2019 • Tyson Fisher
Several groups and stakeholders are lending their support to a trucking company in a lawsuit at the Florida Supreme Court. The high court will determine whether dash cam video evidence is sufficient to dismiss a case.
The Florida Trucking Association and U.S. Chamber of Commerce are among the groups that have filed to appear as amicus curiae in the Wilsonart v. Lopez case in the Florida Supreme Court. Those with amicus curiae status can put in their 2 cents’ worth about a case to which they are not a party.
In October, the Florida Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction over the case involving Wilsonart, a Temple, Texas-based trucking company, and the estate of a pickup truck driver who was killed after crashing into one of Wilsonart’s tractor-trailers.
Wilsonart is relying on dash cam video as evidence that its trucker was not at fault.
A trial court granted summary judgment based on that evidence. However, the Fifth District Court of Appeals ruled that current standards do not allow video evidence, no matter how compelling, to be a deciding factor when awarding summary judgment.
In its opinion, the appellate court submitted the following question to the high court:
“Should there be an exception to the present summary judgment standards that
are applied by state courts in Florida that would allow for the entry of final summary
judgment in favor of the moving party when the movant’s video evidence completely
negates or refutes any conflicting evidence presented by the nonmoving party in
opposition to the summary judgment motion and there is no evidence or suggestion
that the videotape evidence has been altered or doctred?”
It is that question which is of interest to those filing briefs as amicus curiae, which includes:
• Florida Trucking Association.
The case goes back to January 2017, when Samuel Rosario was driving his 2015 Freightliner for Wilsonart on U.S. 192 in Osceola County, Fla. According to the complaint, Rosario’s negligent driving caused Jon Lopez to slam his pickup truck into the tractor-trailer. Lopez died from his injuries.
One eyewitness said that Rosario had suddenly changed lanes just before the crash. This led to swerving from the center lane to the left lane. An expert concluded that part of the Freightliner was in the right lane when the crash occurred. This conclusion was based in part by the lone witness’s testimony.
However, dash cam video evidence suggests a different story.
Rosario testified he was traveling in the center eastbound lane and began to slow down as he approached an intersection. It was then when he felt an impact to the rear of the Freightliner.
Rosario said he was coming to a full stop with his wheels straight with the intent to drive straight forward. Forward-facing dash cam video shows the Freightliner in the center and gradually coming to a stop at a red light when it experienced an impact, forcing it to veer left and striking the car in front of it.
Attorneys claimed that because Lopez rear-ended the Freightliner, the pickup truck driver is presumed negligent under state law. Furthermore, video evidence corroborates Rosario’s account of events while contradicting the one eyewitness account. Consequently, the trial court dismissed the case based on the convincing video evidence. An appeal followed.
Dash cam evidence inadmissible for summary judgment
In its opinion, the appellate court ruled that the trial court’s dismissal was incorrect “when it concluded that the video evidence ‘blatantly contradicts the eye witness testimony and the opinion of plaintiff’s expert.’”
Supporting the ruling, the appellate court pointed out that attorneys for Wilsonart and Rosari relied on two cases that did in fact show that “clear, objective, neutral video evidence” can be contradictory to the point of rendering the opposing party’s evidence incompetent. However, in neither of those cases does video evidence grant summary judgment.
According to the opinion, Florida has a more restrictive standard for summary judgment. More specifically, a court cannot decide the credibility of a witness or consider the weight of conflicting evidence.
Regardless of how convincing the dash cam video evidence can be, it is up to a jury, not a judge, to determine how much weight it holds when determining who is at fault in this case.
“Here, the video evidence showing Rosario’s driving pattern is both compelling that appellees were not negligent and directly contradictory to the estate’s evidence in opposition to the summary judgment motion,” the appellate court ruled. “However, in the event this case survives appellees’ inevitable motion for directed verdict at trial, then it would be the jury’s job to assess the credibility of the estate’s witnesses as to the cause of the accident and to weigh and compare appellees’ conflicting evidence, including the videotape.”
But the appellate did not leave the case at that. In the opinion, the appellate panel submitted the above certified question to the Florida Supreme Court. The appellate court concluded that technological advances have increased “the likelihood of video and digital evidence being more frequently used in both trial and pretrial proceeding.”
Now the Supreme Court will decide whether or not to update summary judgment procedures. If it does, the original dismissal from the trial court is likely to stand. If not, the appellate court decision stands, and the case will go back to the trial court for further proceedings.
No matter what happens, the dash cam video can be used in future court proceedings, including a trial. At the moment, dash cam video evidence cannot justify dismissing a case without a trial.
Interest outside the courtroom
The question of whether video evidence should be included in awarding summary judgment has been of interest to many groups.
In its brief to the court, the Florida Trucking Association points out that federal standards, on which Florida models itself, aim “to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action.”
“And yet, this court and other Florida courts have often employed a summary judgment standard that differs markedly from the federal one: a standard that stands in stark contrast to the expressly stated purpose of the Florida rules to achieve the ‘just, speedy, and inexpensive’ resolution of litigation,” the Florida Trucking Association’s brief states.
Nearly every amicus brief filed asks the state Supreme Court to adopt a federal standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court commonly known as the Celotex Trilogy. Essentially, once a party moving for summary judgment meets its initial burden of establishing an absence of material fact, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to provide evidence of their claims, not merely showing there “is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts,” according to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Unlike Florida law, the Celotex Trilogy standard provides no obligation on the movant to introduce evidence to negate the claim.
Every amicus brief filed in the Wilsonart case wants Florida to move to that standard as 41 other states have.
The Florida Health Care Association and Associated Industries of Florida state the Florida law requires a party seeking summary judgment to prove a negative by disproving all reasonable doubts raised by the opposition.
“It is an unrealistic burden, which leaves many cases that should be resolved on summary judgment postured for trial instead – unnecessarily requiring parties to spend more on litigation, taking up additional judicial resources, and delaying the final outcome of cases,” the two associations state in a joint brief.