Is a Personal Injury Defendant Responsible for Insurance Company’s Spoliation of Evidence?

Whenever there is an airplane crash, you inevitably hear the media talk about the “black box,” i.e., the data recorders that often provide accident investigators with valuable evidence when trying to piece together what went wrong. These days, many cars contain their own black box-type devices, which can prove equally valuable when preserving evidence for a potential personal injury lawsuit. Of course, this only helps if the vehicle itself is properly preserved and not lost or destroyed following the accident.

French v. Perez

A recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals, French v. Perez, addressed just such a scenario. This case revolves around a December 2014 auto accident. The plaintiff was a passenger in his sister’s car. It collided with another vehicle operated by the defendant and owned by the defendant’s wife.

The defendant’s cae was insured by State Farm. Shortly after the accident, the defendant’s wife signed title of the car over to State Farm, which took immediate possession. Two weeks later, the plaintiff sent State Farm a standard notice to “preserve any evidence related to the accident,” which included the car and its black box recorder.

State Farm apparently ignored this request and proceeded to sell the vehicle. Several months later, the plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against the defendant. (The plaintiff initially sued his sister as well, but later dismissed the claims against her.) The plaintiff then moved for sanctions against the defendant, alleging he was responsible for the “spoliation” of evidence, i.e., the insurer’s decision to sell the car and the black box.

The trial judge denied the plaintiff’s motion. The Court of Appeals agreed to review the issue. A divided three-judge panel upheld the trial court. The majority noted the plaintiff never actually put the defendant himself “on notice” that the car and the black box needed to be preserved. Rather, the plaintiff notified the insurance company. The plaintiff did not even notify the defendant’s wife, who was the actual owner of the vehicle at the time of the accident. The Court of Appeals said it would be unfair to hold the defendant “responsible for State Farm’s disposition of the vehicle.”

Judge Christopher J. McFadden, the third judge on the panel, disagreed with the majority and wrote a separate dissenting opinion. McFadden pointed out that under the terms of the insurance contract, the defendant “expressly or by implication, authorized State Farm to act for him in the resolution of” the plaintiff’s claim for damages. In other words, State Farm acted as the defendant’s agent when it ignored the plaintiff’s request to preserve the car and sold it off.

Responding to McFadden, the majority said the insurance contract itself was not in the record and therefore not properly considered as evidence. And in any event, it was not clear whether the defendant–as opposed to his wife–was actually a “named insured.” Indeed, the majority pointed out Judge McFadden himself did not explain “whether a resident relative of the named insured is also in an agency relationship with State Farm.”

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