What Does Florida’s New Summary Judgment Standard Mean For Insurers?
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Insurers will likely enjoy more favorable outcomes under Florida’s new summary judgment standard. The court’s less rigorous review of attempts to withstand summary judgment will impact expected litigation outcomes, litigation strategy, and largely benefits insurers.
How Does Florida’s New Summary Judgment Standard Differ From Its Old Summary Judgment Standard?
On December 31, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court changed Florida’s summary judgment. Florida’s old summary judgment standard compelled courts to grant summary judgment only if “no genuine issue as to any material fact” remained. The court considered the entire record and if there was the “slightest doubt” that a material issue remained, summary judgment was not warranted. Jones v. Dirs. Guild of America, Inc., 584 So. 2d 1057, 1059 (Fla. 1st DCA 1991).
Florida’s new summary judgment standard requires the evidence on the issue of fact be probative enough that a reasonable jury could find in favor of the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986). In short, the new standard is less rigorous and requires an issue of fact be significant for the nonmoving party to survive summary judgment.
As a result, more cases will likely be resolved on summary judgment. Parties moving for summary judgment are more likely to succeed. Parties responding to summary judgment must meet a higher burden to proceed to trial.
How Does Florida’s New Summary Judgment Standard Benefit Insurers Who Seek to Enforce Policy Exclusions and Conditions Precedent?
Insurance companies often draft policies with broad exclusions, limitations on coverage, and conditions precedent to litigation that are presented to insureds in contracts of adhesion. While insurers should always be weary of public policy concerns invalidating policies, insurers who do not overstep this bound will be largely benefited by Florida’s adoption of its new summary judgment standard. The critical facts in insurance litigation where insurers enforce exclusions or conditions precedent to litigation are usually straightforward and may not be subject to dispute under the new summary judgment standard.
Previously, the summary judgment standard heavily favored proceeding to trial. The old summary judgment standard favored proceeding to trial so much so that, a homeowner’s four-year delay in reporting hurricane damage did not warrant summary judgment even though the policy contained a provision requiring immediate notice. See Leben v. State Farm Fla. Ins. Co., 93 So. 3d 528, (Fla. 4th DCA 2012). Even though the damage was immediately apparent and was not reported, the Court found, under the old standard that there was still a dispute of material fact regarding prejudice to the insurer’s investigation. Id.
It seems unlikely that, under the new, less rigorous summary judgment standard, a court would allow litigation concerning a four-year delay to proceed through summary judgment because there is a dispute regarding resulting prejudice. It does not seem a reasonable jury would find that a four-year delay did not hindered the insurer’s investigation, even if the insured claims otherwise. Thus, under the new standard, summary judgment in favor of the insurer would be more likely.
How Does Florida’s New Summary Judgment Standard Impact an Insurer’s Litigation Strategy?
Florida’s summary judgment rule is codified in Section 1.150, Florida Rules of Civil Procedure. Section 1.150(d) provides that upon a motion for summary judgment, even if a case is not fully adjudicated, the court “must ascertain, if practicable, what material facts exist without substantial controversy” and the litigation will proceed accordingly. Id. In other words, even if an entire case is not disposed of on summary judgment, certain findings of fact can still be established.
Under the new rule, these findings of fact are more easily established because the standard for disputing facts is less rigorous as previously established. This means even if an insurer is unsuccessful in fully proving their case at summary judgment, summary judgment can still benefit the insurer by resolving facts in their favor. These facts could include any one of the following: the execution of the policy, failure of insured to provide notice, failure of insured to mitigate damages, some of the damage claimed by the insured is excluded under the policy, and/or coverage had temporarily lapsed. While any one of these findings may not dispose of the litigation, it will limit the scope of any ensuing litigation or trial and can increase leverage in settlement negotiations.
Ultimately, regardless of the substantive impact Florida’s adoption of the new summary judgment rule has on litigation or a court’s finding of fact, the new summary judgment standard will have a large impact on insurance litigation. The increased threat of summary judgment will have a large effect on mediations, settlement offers, and litigation outcome expectations. The change in Florida’s Summary Judgment Standard will likely result in more favorable settlements for insurers.
Florida’s New Summary Judgment Standard Benefits Insurers
Summary judgment is a useful tool for insurers involved in litigation. With Florida’s adoption of a new summary judgment standard, insurers can more effectively enforce policy exclusions and conditions precedent to litigation without having to proceed to trial.
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