The Supreme Court of Florida issued its opinion in Florida Highway Patrol v. Jackson, 2020 Fla. LEXIS 108 (Fla. Jan 23, 2020), which answered the following certified question of great public importance:
Does rule 9.130 [(A)(3)(C)(XI)] permit an appeal of a non-final order denying immunity if the record shows that the defendant is entitled to immunity as a matter of law but the trial court did not explicitly preclude it as a defense?
The Court’s answer to this question was “no.” But this opinion stands for much more than just a negative answer to a certified question. Indeed, this opinion has significant implications upon procedural and substantive areas of construction law, which may affect agents of the state of Florida, including Construction Engineering and Inspection professionals and consultants (“CEI”).
Procedurally, the Court recognizes that Fla. R. App. P. 9.130 insufficiently protects the public and governmental interests as “it leaves too great a risk that erroneous denials of operational sovereign immunity will go unreviewed until it is too late.” Id. at * 19. By extension of this risk, the Jackson Court announced that “courts should determine entitlement to sovereign immunity as early as the record permits.” Id. at * 18. In fact, on that basis, courts can address a motion for summary judgment asserting entitlement to sovereign immunity even if there are outstanding disputes as to, say, the existence of a duty of care. Id. at 17-18. Accordingly, and in an effort to remedy the risk of erroneous denials going unreviewed until it is too late, the Court amended Fla. R. App. P. 9.130 to expand appellate review of nonfinal orders denying sovereign immunity. Jackson, 2020 Fla. LEXIS 108 at * 19; In re Amendments to Fla. Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.130, No. SC19-1734 (Fla. Jan. 23, 2020). The new form of Fla. R. App. P. 9.130 cements the policy mentioned above because it allows an appeal of a nonfinal order denying a motion for summary judgment due to entitlement to sovereign immunity. Meanwhile, under the old rule, the order was only appealable if the trial court order determined – as a matter of law – that a party was not entitled to sovereign immunity. As such, the new rule focuses on what was argued in the motion as opposed to what was written in the order.