Debating the dashcam defense

Florida Supreme Court wrangles with legal question from an appellate court on the veracity of dashcam footage during trials.

August-September 2020

Tyson Fisher

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Is a dashcam a credible evidence in a crash? That’s a question before the Florida Supreme Court, and it’s not as cut and dry as one might think.

The estate of a man killed in a truck-involved crash is claiming a dashcam video proves the opposite of what the trucking company claims, adding a layer of complexity to the case that could update summary judgment laws to include video technology.

On June 4, the estate of Jon Lopez filed its brief with the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that the high court should affirm an appellate court’s decision to not allow summary judgment for Temple, Texas-based trucking company Wilsonart.

A trial court had dismissed the case, relying on dashcam footage that allegedly exonerated the trucker. However, the Fifth District appeals court, reversed that decision but went on to ask the state Supreme Court for guidance regarding summary judgment laws.

Dashcam case background

The case goes back to January 2017, when trucker Samuel Rosario was driving his 2015 Freightliner for Wilsonart on U.S. 192 in Osceola County, Fla. According to the complaint, Rosario’s negligence caused Lopez to slam his pickup truck into the rear of the tractor-trailer. Lopez died from his injuries.

One eyewitness said that Rosario had suddenly changed lanes just before the crash. The truck then swerved from the center lane to the left lane. An expert provided by Lopez concluded that part of the Freightliner was in the right lane when the crash occurred. That conclusion was based in part by the lone witness testimony.

Rosario testified he was traveling in the center eastbound lane and began to slow down, coming to a full stop, as he approached an intersection. Then he felt an impact to the rear.

Corroborating Rosario’s account, dashcam video shows the tractor-trailer in the center of its lane and gradually coming to a stop at a red light. At this point, the trailer was struck. The impact forced the truck to veer left, striking the car in front of it.

The trial court dismissed the case based on the convincing video evidence. An appeal followed.

According to the appeals opinion, Florida has a more restrictive standard for summary judgment. A court cannot decide the credibility of a witness or consider the weight of conflicting evidence. It is up to a jury, not a judge, to determine how much weight evidence holds when determining fault.

In the opinion, the appellate panel submitted a 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.” It asked the high court to consider the following question:

“Should there be an exception to the 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 doctored?”

Lopez’s argument

In a brief filed on June 4, Lopez argued that “this case is not about a sudden lane change. Instead, the plaintiff’s expert opined that the defendant driver negligently drove in two lanes at once, meaning he violated a traffic statute.” Ironically, this conclusion is based on the dashcam footage, which Wilsonart is also relying on to prove its conflicting side of the story.

Factual disputes aside, Lopez’s attorney also disputed whether or not the Florida Supreme Court should have the authority to change summary judgment rules in the first place. In the brief, Lopez’s counsel said the Florida state constitution allows the Supreme Court to both make and interpret procedural law. However, it also claimed that the grant of legislative and judicial powers to a single institution is “uncommon in our republic.”

Outside interest

This case has caught the attention of several parties with a stake in the outcome. The following groups filed briefs as amicus curiae before Lopez’s attorneys filed the response brief:

  • Florida Trucking Association.
  • S. Chamber of Commerce.
  • Florida Justice Reform Institute.
  • Florida Defense Lawyers Association.
  • Product Liability Advisory Council.
  • Federation of Defense and
  • Corporate Counsel.
  • Business Law Section of the
  • Florida Bar.
  • Florida Chamber of Commerce.
  • Florida Health Care Association.
  • Associated Industries of Florida.

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 dashcam case wants Florida to move to that standard as 41 other states have.

That is, except for the last two that were filed in early June.

The latest motions to file an amicus curiae brief come from the American Board of Trial Advocates and a group of retired Florida state court justices. Deviating from the other amicus briefs, the two groups sided with Lopez. The American Board of Trial Advocates echoed Lopez’s argument of going through proper channels to change standards.

“ABOTA does not intend to advocate for one summary judgment standard over another in its amicus brief,” the group stated. “Rather, ABOTA will encourage the court to go through the rules committee process prior to making any change to the current iteration of the rule.”

The group of judges made a similar argument.

“To the extent this court is contemplating changing the summary judgment standard in Florida state courts to mirror the standard as applied in federal court, the retired judges believe that any such change should go through a rules committee so that the committee can receive comments from both practitioners and from sitting state court judges – whose workload and resources would be impacted by the change,” the judges stated. LL

Tyson Fisher

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.