Does Video Evidence Change the Summary Judgment Standard? Supreme Court of Florida Sheds Light

January 8, 2021

by: Colin E. Flora

This week, we again are presented with few cases from Indiana’s appellate courts from which to choose for our discussion. Nevertheless, we are not wholly lacking for interesting topics. Thanks to a recent decision from the Supreme Court of Florida, we have an opportunity to once again discuss the meaningful distinction between the summary judgment standard applied in federal courts and the standard applied in many state courts, including Indiana.

In a prior discussion, we looked to the 2013 opinion in Kader v. State, from the Indiana Court of Appeals, which did a solid job of explaining the difference in the federal and Indiana standards for determining motions for summary judgment. As the court explained:

In summary judgment proceedings, the initial burden is on the movant to “designate sufficient evidence to foreclose the nonmovant’s reasonable inferences and eliminate any genuine factual issues.” It is only after the movant has met this burden that “the burden shifts to the nonmovant to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of a genuine issue for trial on each challenged element of the cause of action.” This aspect of summary judgment procedure in Indiana differs significantly from the federal procedure.

The current federal standard dates to the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision in Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, from 1983. Just over a decade later, the Indiana Supreme Court considered whether to adopt the Celotex standard in Jarboe v. Landmark Community Newspapers. The court rejected the invitation to follow Celotex and Indiana has scarcely looked back. More recently, the year after Kader, the Indiana Supreme Court renewed its commitment to its own standard in Hughley v. State. There, writing for the unanimous court, Chief Justice Rush explained:

Even though Indiana Trial Rule 56 is nearly identical to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, we have long recognized that “Indiana’s summary judgment procedure . . . diverges from federal summary judgment practice.” In particular, while federal practice permits the moving party to merely show that the party carrying the burden of proof lacks evidence on a necessary element, we impose a more onerous burden: to affirmatively “negate an opponent’s claim.” Our choice to heighten the summary judgment burden has been criticized because it may let summary judgment be precluded by as little as a non-movant’s “mere designation of a self-serving affidavit.”


That observation is accurate, but using it as the basis for criticism overlooks the policy behind that heightened standard. Summary judgment “is a desirable tool to allow the trial court to dispose of cases where only legal issues exist.” But it is also a “blunt . . . instrument,” by which “the non-prevailing party is prevented from having his day in court,” We have therefore cautioned that summary judgment “is not a summary trial;” and the Court of Appeals has often rightly observed that it “is not appropriate merely because the non-movant appears unlikely to prevail at trial.” In essence, Indiana consciously errs on the side of letting marginal cases proceed to trial on the merits, rather than risk short-circuiting meritorious claims. And with that relatively high bar in mind, we turn to the Court of Appeals decision.

Key to that standard is that it is the duty of the finder of fact at trial—a jury or, if the matter is a bench trial, the judge—to resolve disputed factual questions. Opting to “consciously err on the side of letting marginal cases proceed to trial,” the standard has led some cases to survive summary judgment and appellate review despite it looking quite clearly that a specific verdict was inevitable. In Indiana caselaw, the most notable example is Reeder v. Harper, in which summary judgment was defeated by use of an affidavit from an affiant who, before the ruling on summary judgment, passed away. Thus, the evidence used to prevent summary judgment was evidence that would not be admissible at trial.

In Jarboe, the Indiana Supreme Court specifically noted that “Indiana is not the only state to take exception to the federal Celotex standard.” One such state was Florida. Last week, in Wilsonart, LLC v. Lopez, the Supreme Court of Florida was confronted with whether to reconsider its rejection of Celotex and, if not, whether video evidence that rebuts testimony of an opposing party would alter application of the summary judgment standard. The specific question taken up by the court was: “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 non-moving party in opposition to the summary judgment motion and there is no evidence or suggestion that the videotape evidence has been altered or doctored?” The court also, sua sponte, asked the parties to address whether Florida should adopt the Celotexstandard.

The case stemmed from a fatal rear-end car crash in which the deceased driver from the rear car sued the front car. Based on the dash camera of the front car, the trial court granted summary judgment, determining that “the video evidence showing [the front driver’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.” Still, sticking with the Florida standard that mirror’s Indiana’s standard, the intermediate appellate court reversed summary judgment and the case was taken up by the Supreme Court of Florida.

The need to call into question whether Florida should adhere to Celotex was necessitated by the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision in Scott v. Harris, which, applying the Celotex standard, concluded that video evidence rebutting the testimony of witnesses, absent evidence that the video has been doctored or altered, is a sufficient basis to grant summary judgment. As to the lead question, the court concluded that the pre-Celotex standard requires summary judgment to have been denied. Accordingly, the court affirmed the intermediate appellate court.

Ironically, on the same day, in a separate opinion, Florida opted to revise its summary judgment rule, thereby brining it in alignment with the federal Celotex standard. Nevertheless, the court did not apply that change retroactively. That approach reminds of the procedure Justice Slaughter called the Indiana Supreme Court to follow in Morrison v. Vasquez, which we’ve previously addressed.

Despite Florida’s decision to hop onto the Celotex bandwagon, the case still provides a useful example into how jurisdictions that do not follow Celotex should handle similar circumstances. Put simply, the correct answer for an Indiana state court would be to follow Wilsonart not Scott.

Join us again next time for further discussion of developments in the law.

Sources

*Disclaimer: The author is licensed to practice in the state of Indiana. The information contained above is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. Laws vary by state and region. Furthermore, the law is constantly changing. Thus, the information above may no longer be accurate at this time. No reader of this content, clients or otherwise, should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any content included herein without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue

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