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Federal Judge Chides Defense for Destroying Evidence in Accident Lawsuit

In any personal injury lawsuit, it is critical the parties to the case preserve any relevant evidence. A court may sanction either side if there is destruction or “spoliation” of evidence. A recent decision by a federal judge in Macon offers an example of these sanctions in practice.

Little v. McClure

This is an ongoing personal injury lawsuit arising from a motor vehicle accident. In February 2012, a tractor trailer collided with another vehicle at the intersection of Interstate 76 and Interstate 75 in Macon. The tractor trailer driver is the defendant. The plaintiffs allege he was negligent because he was distracted by talking on his cellular phone at the point of the accident.

The defendant denied this. He said in a pretrial deposition he was using a hands-free device and ended his call about 90 seconds before the accident. The plaintiffs produced cellphone records contradicting this. The defendant responded he was having difficulty with his hands-free device and it may have failed to disconnect immediately even though his conversation ended.

The plaintiffs, naturally, wanted to examine the hands-free device to verify the defendant’s claim. Unfortunately, the defendant said he returned the device to the manufacturer a few weeks after the accident, so it could not be made available to the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs went to the judge, arguing this amounted to a spoliation of evidence.

The judge agreed. In a decision issued on July 31 of this year, U.S. District Judge Marc T. Treadwell said the defendant failed to preserve evidence as normally required by Georgia and federal law. As is standard practice in personal injury cases, counsel for both the plaintiffs and the defense informed their clients about the need to preserve evidence shortly after it became clear there would be litigation. Nevertheless, Judge Treadwell said, the defendant “returned his hands free device to the manufacturer approximately two months after the spoliation letters were received.” This could not be excused as an accident or oversight, the judge said, as the letters specifically informed the defendant of the need to preserve “all evidence related to this accident.” Judge Treadwell said “it would defy common sense” for the driver, his employer and their attorneys not to recognize the absolute need to preserve the hands-free device as a crucial piece of evidence.

The defendant’s case rests on his testimony that the malfunction of the hands-free device led to an error in the cellphone records that show he was using his phone when the accident occurred. The defendant’s subsequent spoliation now prevents the plaintiffs from cross-examining that evidence. Accordingly, Judge Treadwell said sanctions are necessary to overcome the prejudice to the plaintiffs’ case. Given the circumstances, Judge Treadwell said he would instruct the jury to draw an “adverse inference” that the defendant destroyed evidence “in bad faith.” This will seriously compromise the defense’s ability to argue the cellphone records were erroneous.