In any kind of personal injury lawsuit, it is critical for the parties to the case to preserve any evidence that may be relevant to the litigation. If a party intentionally or negligently destroys relevant evidence, this is known as spoliation, and a judge may impose sanctions, up to and including dismissing the case (if the plaintiff is at fault) or issuing a default judgment against the defendant. However, a court must also consider all relevant facts and circumstances in deciding whether or not sanctions are necessary.
Cooper Tire & Rubber Company v. Koch
A recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision illustrates how not all spoliation is fatal to a plaintiff’s case. This decision involves an ongoing product liability claim arising from a fatal car accident. The victim was driving his vehicle on a Georgia interstate “when his left rear tire detached,” according to court records. The vehicle “swerved out of control,” hit a guardrail, overturned “several times,” and finally came to a stop in a ditch.
The victim initially survived the crash and remained in intensive care for several days before he ultimately died. During a brief period in which he regained consciousness, the victim told his wife that the “tire blew” on his car. He also told her to “save the tires.”
After the accident, a towing company removed the victim’s car and kept in a storage yard. Just prior to the victim’s death, his wife spoke with the owner of the storage yard. Since she could not afford the ongoing storage fees, she agreed to transfer the vehicle, which was totaled, to the yard owner, who then crushed it for scrap. Prior to the vehicle’s destruction, the wife had the yard owner “save the left rear tire,” per her husband’s request.
The wife subsequently filed a product liability lawsuit against the tire manufacturer, alleging it “defectively designed and/or manufactured” the tire that caused her husband’s fatal crash. As an initial matter, the defendant moved to dismiss the case, alleging the wife failed to preserve all of the relevant evidence. Specifically, while the wife preserved the “carcass” of the blown tire, she allowed the wheel, the other tires, and the “remnants of the detached tread” to be destroyed when she signed the vehicle over to the storage yard.
The trial court, and later the Court of Appeals, rejected the motion to dismiss. The Court of Appeals explained the wife was not liable for spoliation sanctions since, at the time she agreed to let the car be destroyed, it was not “reasonably foreseeable” that she planned to bring a lawsuit. Under Georgia law, a duty to preserve evidence only arises when a person has actual or constructive notice of potential litigation. “Constructive” notice basically means a reasonable person “should have known” that a lawsuit was likely or imminent, even if no overt action has been taken.
The Court of Appeals only reviewed and affirmed the trial court’s ruling on the defendant’s motion to dismiss. It did not rule on the merits of the plaintiff’s lawsuit. And it is possible that at trial, the plaintiff’s failure to preserve evidence will impair her ability to prove the defendant’s liability.