In any type of personal injury lawsuit, it is important for the parties to the case to preserve all evidence that may assist the court in determining the facts. Under no circumstances should a party ever intentionally withhold or destroy evidence. Even in cases where evidence may have been lost by accident, a judge may still interpret that as an intentional act and impose sanctions against the offending party.
O’Berry v. Turner
For example, a federal judge in Valdosta, Georgia, recently imposed sanctions against a pair of corporate defendants in an ongoing truck accident lawsuit. The underlying case involves a June 2013 incident. A man was driving his car when a tractor trailer allegedly swerved into his lane. The impact sent the car off the road and into a light pole. The driver and his passenger were injured and subsequently sued multiple parties, including the driver and owners of the tractor trailer.
In August 2013, about two months after the accident, the plaintiffs’ attorney faxed a letter to the risk management office of the defendant company. According to court records, this letter requested the company “preserve driver logs, information gathered from the truck, and information about the truck itself, among other things.” The defendant acknowledged the letter and said it would take “all measures necessary” to preserve the relevant evidence.
More than two years later, in January 2016, the risk management official responsible for the file received a request for the accident information. Unfortunately, this official could not locate the folder where he kept the original printout of the information. Nor was there any electronic backup. Before the court, the official could not explain what happened to the folder or why it was missing.
That was not good enough for the judge presiding over the case. On April 27, he issued an order granting the plaintiffs’ motion for sanctions against the corporate defendants. (The driver of the tractor trailer, who is also a defendant, was not held responsible for this incident.) The judge said the company’s response to the initial request to preserve evidence—making a single paper copy and placing it in a manila office folder—was wholly inadequate. The defendants had a legal duty to “take reasonable steps” to preserve evidence related to the accident. The judge noted the company lacked a proper document retention policy and failed to answer multiple requests from the plaintiffs to produce the requested information. The court said this could not be excused as an accident or simple negligence. Indeed, due to the defendants’ “shiftless and irresponsible” conduct, the judge said this evidence is now “lost forever and cannot be produced in discovery.”
The judge further determined that the defendants “intentionally” destroyed evidence, thus warranting the most severe sanctions permitted under the federal rules of evidence. Accordingly, the judge said he would instruct the jury hearing the case “that it must presume that the lost information” was “unfavorable” to the corporate defendants.