When an accident involves a commercial truck, there are usually records available with respect to the vehicle’s safety and maintenance. Such records can be made available to an injured victim during the discovery process of a personal injury lawsuit. If those records are improperly withheld–or even destroyed before they can be disclosed–a trial judge has the authority to impose sanctions on the offending party.
Allen v. Sanchez
It is important to note, however, that a judge will only impose sanctions for “spoliation” of evidence when certain standards are met. An ongoing federal personal injury lawsuit, Allen v. Sanchez, helps illustrate how courts deal with these situations.
This case involves a January 2018 motor vehicle accident between a commercial tractor trailer and another vehicle driven by the plaintiff. While both vehicles were on the interstate, the tractor trailer’s left front tire blew out. The tractor trailer driver attempted to navigate his vehicle to the shoulder of the road, but in doing so struck the plaintiff’s car.
The plaintiff’s subsequent lawsuit alleged that the tractor trailer driver and his employer were negligent in causing the accident. Shortly after filing the complaint, the plaintiff’s attorneys sent a letter to the defendants, asking them to preserve their “driver logbooks and annual inspection, daily inspection, and maintenance reports” for the driver and his truck.
The defendants never produced the requested information. This was despite the fact the defendant company’s policy clearly required the driver to keep the records requested by the plaintiff. The plaintiffs therefore asked the trial judge to impose sanctions on the defense for “spoliation” of evidence.
U.S. District Judge Marc T. Treadwell of Macon agreed with the plaintiff that this was a case of spoliation. The legal definition of spoliation is the “failure to preserve property for another’s use as evidence in pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation.” To prove spoliation, the plaintiff needed to show three things:
- The requested evidence actually existed at one time,
- The defense had a duty to preserve the requested evidence, and
- The evidence was “crucial” to the plaintiff’s case.
As noted above, there was no question the records existed. The letter from the plaintiff’s counsel also put the defendants on notice that they needed to preserve the records. The evidence was crucial to the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages, which requires proof the driver “chose to drive his truck knowing the tire that caused the accident was ‘defectively maintained and/or inspected.’”
All that said, Judge Treadwell did not impose sanctions against the defense at this time. Here, the plaintiff sought a specific sanction–an instruction to the jury that it should infer the defense acted in “bad faith” by not producing the requested evidence. The judge said it should be left to the jury to decide whether there was bad faith. If there was, then he will further instruct the jury that the “absence of the reports” requested by the plaintiff “can give rise to a rebuttable presumption that it contained evidence harmful to the defendants on the issue of whether [the driver] had knowledge of the faulty tire.”