Articles Posted in Sanctions

Courts in America are generally known for their broad discovery rules. Indeed, litigants in American courts, both state and federal, have access to a far wider scope of information than their peers in foreign legal systems. Notwithstanding the expansive breadth of American discovery rules, courts play little role in the exchange of information, leading some litigants to engage in brinkmanship during the discovery process. For instance, in a recent case, Venator v. Interstate Resources, Inc., a Georgia federal magistrate judge was forced to resolve a discovery dispute involving a defendant refusing to disclose supervisor evaluations related to the alleged wrongful death of a tractor-trailer driver.

The death at the heart of Venator occurred in November 2013. The plaintiff in this case was the widow of a tractor-trailer driver who on the 27th of that month arrived at a warehouse owned by Interstate Paper, LLC. Following his arrival at the warehouse, the driver asked an employee at Interstate to assist him in removing a faulty mud flap from the tractor-trailer. The employee agreed and used a fork lift to aid in the removal of the flap. The facts about what occurred afterward remain in dispute, but somehow during the removal process, the driver became pinned between the fork lift and the tractor-trailer. As a result, the driver suffered injuries and died. Following this tragic event, the decedent’s widow then initiated the current suit against Interstate and the employee operating the fork lift, alleging various claims sounding in negligence.

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It goes without saying that success in a lawsuit often depends on the evidence. Although a plaintiff is not always certain that he or she will have access to the best possible evidence, one does expect that the opposing party will not, through either neglect or willful obstruction, allow material evidence to be lost. Even though the effects of lost evidence are not easy to cure, court do have means of penalizing parties that fail to comply with their obligations to preserve  evidence. For instance, in a recent decision, O’Berry v. Turner, a federal judge imposed sanctions on several defendants in a tractor-trailer accident case for failing to produce material related to the driver and tractor-trailer involved in the accident.

Turner started with a June 2013 traffic accident in Homerville, Georgia. While proceeding west along Dame Avenue in Homerville, a vehicle being operated by one of the plaintiffs in this action was struck by a tractor-trailer, which the driver of the car alleged swerved into his lane without warning. The collision caused the car to veer off the road and into a light post. As a result of the accident, the driver and another occupant in the vehicle sustained various injuries. The truck was being operated by an employee acting on behalf of ADM Trucking, Inc. and Archer Daniels Midland Company. Following the accident, the driver and the other occupant brought suit against the driver of the tractor-trailer, ADM, and Archer Daniels. In August 2013, counsel for the plaintiffs sent a spoliation letter to ADM, requesting that the defendants make an effort to preserve various evidence related to the driver and the trailer involved in the accident. Counsel for the defendants responded to this request and stated that the defendants would take all measures necessary to assure the preservation of pertinent evidence. Eventually, the plaintiffs made a discovery request to the defendant, requesting, inter alia, the truck driver’s driver log and all electronically stored information related to the tractor-trailer involved in the accident. The defendants failed to comply with the request, and the plaintiffs moved for sanctions against ADM and Archer Daniels.

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