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.
J.G. and E.G. responded to the motion by arguing that they had not intentionally destroyed the tractor, and that R&J’s employees had plenty of time to inspect the trailer prior to when title was handed over. After reviewing the evidence, the court agreed with R&J that it had been severely prejudiced by the destruction of the tractor and gave the plaintiffs thirty days to confirm that the tractor had been destroyed and, if not, locate it. The plaintiffs confirmed its destruction and the lower court granted the motion for sanctions. It dismissed the case given the significant prejudice to R&J and their inability to mount any sort of defense to J.G. and E.G.’s claims.
J.G. and E.G. appealed. On appeal they argued that dismissal of their claims was inappropriate because the destruction of the tractor had been unintentional and not an intentional effort to thwart R&J’s rights in litigation. In considering this argument, the Court of Appeals noted that prior precedent from the Tennessee Supreme Court had established that intentional destruction is not a prerequisite to the imposition of sanctions for spoliation of evidence. Instead, the court noted that sanctions such as dismissal of claims must be determined on a case by case basis by looking at the totality of the circumstances. In this case, the Court of Appeals held that the lower court had properly considered all of the relevant factors. While J.G. and E.G.’s conduct was unintentional, the effect of their conduct severely prejudiced R&J’s ability to make a defense, and that, because of this, dismissal of the claims was the only appropriate remedy.
Destruction of evidence can occur in any type of case and may be the result of deliberate and intentional misconduct, or may simply be the result of someone misplacing a crucial piece of evidence, or mistakenly allowing it to be destroyed. While courts endeavor to give parties the benefit of the doubt, where the destruction of evidence makes it impossible for one party to plead their case in court, the court may have no choice but to dismiss all claims. If you are currently involved in personal injury litigation where the spoliation of evidence has occurred, Tennessee truck accident attorney Eric Beasley can work with you to evaluate how this destruction of evidence may impact your case. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.
Related Blog Posts:
Tennessee Court Confirms Collateral Source Rule Still Applies, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, March 7, 2018.
Tennessee Court Reminds Plaintiffs To Be Wary of Statute of Limitations, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, January 4, 2018.
Sixth Circuit Overturns Harsh Pleading Standards in Auto Accident Case, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, December 6, 2016.