Loss of Evidence Destroys Plaintiff’s Case

Where a plaintiff in a tractor-trailer accident case unintentionally allowed the tractor at issue to be destroyed, dismissal of the case was ruled an appropriate remedy for spoliation of evidence.

In Gardner v. R&J Express, LLC, No. E2017-00823-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 7, 2018), plaintiff owned a tractor truck that was pulling a trailer owned by defendant. While driving, plaintiff was involved in a single vehicle accident when the tractor-trailer overturned, which plaintiff alleged was caused “because the tandem axle on the trailer ‘suddenly and unexpectedly’ came loose while they were traveling down the highway.”

The accident occurred on May 29, 2015, and plaintiff retained counsel just a few weeks later on June 17, 2015. On June 24, 2015, plaintiff’s attorney sent a letter to defendant regarding plaintiff’s intention to file suit and “Defendant’s responsibility to preserve the relevant evidence.” Shortly after this letter was sent, plaintiff signed title of the tractor over to his insurance company, and the tractor was destroyed.

Based on the destruction of the tractor, defendant filed a Motion for Spoliation Sanctions, and the trial court ultimately determined that because a “critical piece of evidence [had] been destroyed by Plaintiffs resulting in severe prejudice to the Defendant, …dismissal [was] the only equitable remedy.” The Court of Appeals affirmed this ruling.

On appeal, plaintiff placed much weight on the argument that he did not intend for the tractor to be destroyed. When analyzing plaintiff’s arguments, the Court quoted extensively from Tatham v. Bridgestone Ams. Holding, Inc., 473 S.W.3d 734 (Tenn. 2015), a Tennessee Supreme Court case addressing sanctions for spoliation of evidence. There, the Supreme Court found:

[I]ntentional conduct is not a prerequisite for a trial court to impose sanctions for the spoliation of evidence…The determination of whether a sanction should be imposed for the spoliation of evidence necessarily depends upon the unique circumstances of each case. Factors relevant to a trial court’s consideration of what, if any, sanctions should be imposed…include:

(1) the culpability of the spoliating party in causing the destruction of the evidence…;

(2) the degree of prejudice suffered by the non-spoliating party as a result of the absence of the evidence;

(3) whether, at the time the evidence was destroyed, the spoliating party knew of should have known that the evidence was relevant to pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation; and

(4) the least severe sanction available to remedy any prejudice…

(quoting Tatham).

In this case, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court properly considered all four factors. Although there was no evidence of intentional conduct, the degree of prejudice, factor two, was high here. The issue at trial in this case would have been whether the accident was caused by a problem with the tractor, the trailer, or the driver. The Court pointed out that “[w]ithout the opportunity to examine the tractor’s condition and determine whether it possibly caused or contributed to the accident, [defendant] would have the sole remaining option of defending the condition of its trailer[.]” In addition, defendant would have been “unable to refute [plaintiff’s] testimony regarding the condition of the tractor at the time of the accident.”

The third factor also weighed in favor of imposing a sanction. Plaintiff did not turn over possession of the tractor to his insurance company until he had already hired an attorney and sent defendant a letter instructing it to preserve evidence. Plaintiff clearly already knew he was planning to file suit, and the Court found that plaintiff “and his counsel should have known that the tractor was relevant to the foreseeable litigation.”

Finally, regarding the fourth factor, the trial court found that dismissal was the only true remedy here, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Court noted that “both parties were not equally prejudiced” and that “defendant’s theory of the case is impossible to prove without the inspection of the tractor.” Further, there were no witnesses here to use in place of inspecting the evidence. For all of these reasons, dismissal was affirmed.

There’s a clear lesson for plaintiffs’ attorneys here. When you take a case, make sure your client understands what he can and cannot do with potential evidence. Especially once a lawyer has been hired, the failure to preserve or destruction of evidence can have huge ramifications in litigating a claim.

I don’t have any quarrel with this opinion, and trust that the same logic will be applied when a defendant fails to secure evidence when it knows (or reasonably should know) that the evidence will be relevant in potential litigation.  In such cases, if the facts are substantially similar to the case here, the defendant’s answer should be stricken and the case should go forward only on the issue of what damages, if any, were caused by the underlying incident.