The Meaning of “Entering Judgment”: Second District Clarifies Earlier Ruling Regarding Sinkhole Loss Endorsement in Insurance Policy
The Second District Court of Appeal in Florida Peninsula Ins. Co. v. Cespedes, Case No. 2D12-4575 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016) recently revisited its previous decision in Florida Peninsula Ins. Co. v. Cespedes, 161 So.3d 581 (Fla. 2d DCA 2014) to enforce an earlier mandate directing the trial court to enter final judgment in favor of Florida Peninsula on a coverage issue relating to a sinkhole loss.
In the 2014 case, Florida Peninsula filed a Motion for Summary Judgment at the trial court level to determine whether Ms. Cespedes’ homeowner’s insurance policy covered sinkhole damage. Motions for Summary Judgment are used to bypass a full trial when the moving party believes that the evidence put forward is such that no reasonable factfinder could disagree with the moving party. The moving party can refer to evidence that would be admissible at trial, including depositions, witness affidavits, and documents obtained during discovery. Courts will grant summary judgment when there are no disputed issues of material fact between the two parties. Material facts are those facts which affect the outcome of the case. The Court will then apply the material facts to the relevant law governing the case and conclude whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
After undertaking the inquiry set out above, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Ms. Cespedes finding that her homeowner’s insurance policy covered sinkhole damage. However, the policy did not definitively address damages. Florida Peninsula then filed an appeal seeking a reversal of the summary judgment ruling. The Second District reversed and instructed the trial court to enter judgment in favor of Florida Peninsula.
The trial court responded by not entering judgment in favor of Florida Peninsula, interpreting the Second District’s instruction as an order to enter judgment, not an order to enter “final” judgment. In Florida, entry of judgment memorializes the result of a lawsuit and makes the result effective for purposes of bringing an enforcement action. A judgment is final where nothing remains to be done to terminate the cause between the parties except for enforcement. To be considered final, Florida courts have ruled that the judgment must contain “magic words demonstrating finality.” Previous cases have ruled that the inclusion of archaic phrases in the order such as “that plaintiff takes nothing by this suit and… go hence without day” adequately demonstrate finality.
Based on its interpretation of the Second District’s mandate, the trial court believed the order had no finality and therefore could allow the litigation to proceed. The Second District found this rationale erroneous and without basis, concluding the nature and context of Florida Peninsula’s motion was understood by all parties as a motion for final summary judgment and as such, the entry of judgment in its favor concluded the litigation. As a result, the Second District sent the case back to the trial court for entry of final judgment in favor of Florida Peninsula.
The larger point expressed by the Second District in its opinion is that the appellate court has inherent power to enforce its mandates and to give judgment as the court below should have given.