Spoliation is a hot button issue in Georgia and defense attorneys have begun sending out spoliation letters is basic car wreck cases insisting the Plaintiff keep the damaged car after an auto accident. Lawyers for the Plaintiff have a tough decision to make. It’s no problem where the Defendant’s own insurance deals with the totaled care because they take possession. The problem arises where the Plaintiff’s own insurance company takes charge of the repairs or salvage. The vehicle is not really under the Plaintiff’s control in that situation and can lead to it going to the crusher without the Plaintiff’s knowledge. In the case we discuss below, the problem is highlighted and the trial court issued the severe sanction of throwing the wrongful death case out of court as a sanction for allowing the car to be destroyed by the wrecker yard. Fortunately, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision and observed that in these facts, the destruction was just negligent and did not deserve the ultimate sanction of having the case thrown out.
The state appellate court issued an opinion in a Georgia car accident case discussing the spoliation doctrine, which can be used by a party to impose sanctions on an opposing party who destroys or fails to preserve relevant evidence in an upcoming trial. The court ultimately determined that although the plaintiff was under a duty to preserve the evidence at issue, because a third party destroyed it without the plaintiff’s knowledge or consent, the lower court was improper to dismiss the plaintiff’s case.
The Facts of the Case
According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff’s wife was killed in a car accident when she encountered standing water on the highway. Evidently, the woman lost control of the car as it hydroplaned and crashed into another vehicle. It was later discovered that the storm drain that was designed to remove water from the highway was clogged with debris. The plaintiff brought a personal injury lawsuit against the city in charge of maintaining that area of the road.
Evidently, the plaintiff’s vehicle was towed to a scrap yard following the accident. In a letter to the plaintiff, the scrap yard required the plaintiff to pay a storage fee; otherwise, the plaintiff’s vehicle would be destroyed and sold for scrap. The plaintiff retained an attorney, who sent a letter to the scrap yard, introducing himself as the plaintiff’s attorney, and requesting that all future communication be sent to him. The attorney also instructed the scrap yard that the vehicle must be preserved for trial, and that there could be severe sanctions if it was destroyed.