One of the central tenants of being a litigant is that you have a duty to preserve any evidence that you know may be relevant to the litigation. Once it is reasonably foreseeable that litigation may occur, a party must make all reasonable efforts to “hold” important evidence and present it from being disposed of. This means that parties may be required to maintain all their emails, back up documents, and preserve any relevant voicemails. The duty to preserve applies equally to physical evidence that needs to be maintained and should not be destroyed, as illustrated in a recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
In this truck accident case, J.G. and E.G. were injured after an accident involving their tractor and a trailer. On the day the accident occurred, J.G. was using his tractor to haul a trailer that belonged to R&J Express, LLC. According to the plaintiffs, the tandem axle on the trailer came loose while they were driving on the highway and the trailer quickly lost control. It eventually overturned, causing the tractor to overturn as well, and leading to both plaintiff’s injuries. Shortly thereafter, J.G. and E.G. retained counsel, and the counsel sent a litigation hold letter out to R&J instructing them to preserve the trailer at issue. Four days later, J.G. signed over the title of the tractor to his insurer, which had paid out for the accident, and the tractor was sold for scraps.
Several months later, J.G. and E.G. filed their lawsuit and R&J promptly responded. R&J then filed a motion for sanctions based on the spoliation of evidence. R&J argued that J.G. and E.G. knowingly failed to preserve evidence when they signed over title to the tractor after retaining legal counsel. R&J stated that because there were no witnesses to the accident, their defense would have to rely primarily on showing that some other technical error caused the accident. To the extent that the technical error came from the tractor, R&J were severely prejudiced as they had no ability to examine the tractor and determine any defects.