The spoliation doctrine provides that when litigation is pending or foreseeable, parties (or potential parties) are under a duty to preserve evidence that may be relevant to the adjudication of the action. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 37. When a party destroys relevant evidence with intent or through gross negligence, it may be subject to sanctions, including the application of adverse evidentiary inferences for a jury to apply at trial. Indeed, given the significant impact a loss of discoverable evidence can have on a plaintiff’s ability to successfully adjudicate his or her case, plaintiffs should always be mindful of important evidence that may exist—for example, videotapes—and be prepared to make arguments in the event such evidence is lost. However, as a recent decision from a Georgia federal district court reveals, establishing spoliation can be a difficult undertaking.
The incident at the heart of this case occurred at a golf course in the Appalachian region of Northern Georgia on October 11, 2014. On that day, the plaintiffs were driving in a golf cart between the second and third holes of the course when the golf cart slid and flipped. The plaintiffs sustained injuries as a result of the accident, and they alleged these were caused by the poor condition and maintenance of the path, about which they claimed they were not warned. The plaintiffs brought suit against the company that owns and manages the golf course, alleging negligence and loss of consortium. After the accident, both the golf cart and the signage that indicated drivers should avoid the area where the crash occurred had been removed or destroyed. Accordingly, the plaintiff made a motion seeking spoliation sanctions.
Spoliation is defined as “the destruction or significant alteration of evidence, or the failure to preserve property for another’s use as evidence in pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation.” Graff v. Baja Marine Corp., 310 F. App’x 298, 301 (11th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). If spoliation has occurred, sanctions may be imposed, which may include “(1) dismissal of the case; (2) exclusion of expert testimony; or (3) a jury instruction on spoliation of evidence which raises a presumption against the spoliator.” Flury v. Daimler Chrysler Corp., 427 F.3d 939, 944 (11th Cir. 2005). The imposition of spoliation sanctions requires a showing of bad faith. In re Delta/AirTran Baggage Fee Antitrust Litig., 770 F. Supp. 2d 1299, 1313 (N.D. Ga. 2011) (“[A] finding of bad faith is a prerequisite to spoliation sanctions”).
Although the golf cart and signage were clearly relevant and important in this case, the federal district court ruled that spoliation sanctions were inappropriate and denied the motion. First, with respect to the golf cart, the Court noted that the golf resort did not in fact own the carts and that weeks prior to the accident, the resort had arranged with its provider to have a fleet of new electric carts delivered and the old carts removed. In addition, when a friend of the plaintiffs called the resort on the day of the accident, she was told that the resort intended to have the carts removed two days later, an honest disclosure that the Court noted suggested a lack of bad faith. Likewise, the Court found no bad faith with respect to the destruction of the signage on the golf course. The resort provided evidence establishing that it replaces the sign monthly, and the plaintiffs did not proffer any evidence to establish that the replacement of the signs was undertaken in bad faith. Given the lack of evidence to establish bad faith on the part of the defendant, the court ruled that the imposition of spoliation sanctions was inappropriate and denied the motion.
In light of the bad faith standard, spoliation is often difficult to establish. Accordingly, litigants should always be prepared to take prompt action before acts of routine maintenance cause the loss of pertinent information. The Atlanta personal injury attorneys at the Simon Law Firm are keenly aware of the importance of prompt action and are knowledgeable about the type of evidence defendants should have and be able to produce during discovery. If you’ve recently been injured as a result of possible negligence and are curious about the legal options you may have, feel free to contact us and schedule a free case evaluation.