In Brookshire Bros., Ltd. v. Aldridge (Tex. July 3, 2013), the Supreme Court of Texas determined “that imposition of the severe sanction of a spoliation instruction was an abuse of discretion” in the trial court, reversed the court of appeals' judgment and remanded the case for a new trial.
In this case, the plaintiff Aldridge (who is the respondent in the appeal) slipped and fell at the defendant’s (who is the petitioner in the appeal) store and sued for damages after the defendant stopped paying for medical expenses. The plaintiff’s fall was captured on surveillance video and the defendant preserved the video footage from the time plaintiff entered the store until shortly after he fell, but did not preserve the remainder of the video, which was “presumably recorded over” by early the next month.
To recover in a slip-and-fall case, a plaintiff must prove, inter alia, that the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of a dangerous condition on the premises such as a slippery substance on the floor and the plaintiff argued in the trial court that the defendant’s failure to preserve additional video footage amounted to spoliation of evidence that would have been helpful to the key issue of whether the spill was on the floor long enough to give the defendant a reasonable opportunity to discover it.
As a result, the plaintiff moved for a spoliation jury instruction and the trial court: 1) allowed the jury to hear evidence bearing on whether the defendant spoliated the video, 2) submitted a spoliation instruction to the jury, and 3) permitted the jury to decide whether spoliation occurred during its deliberations on the merits of the lawsuit. The jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff and awarded him over $1 million in damages. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment on the verdict, holding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting evidence of spoliation or charging the jury with the spoliation instruction.
After analysis of the law associated with spoliation, the Supreme Court stated that “the harsh remedy of a spoliation instruction is warranted only when the trial court finds that the spoliating party acted with the specific intent of concealing discoverable evidence” and that a “failure to preserve evidence with a negligent mental state may only underlie a spoliation instruction in the rare situation in which a nonspoliating party has been irreparably deprived of any meaningful ability to present a claim or defense”. As a result, the Court held “that a trial court's finding of intentional spoliation pursuant to the analysis set forth above is a necessary predicate to the proper submission of a spoliation instruction to the jury.”
While issuing the caveat that “[o]n rare occasions, a situation may arise in which a party's negligent breach of its duty to reasonably preserve evidence irreparably prevents the nonspoliating party from having any meaningful opportunity to present a claim or defense”, the court determined that there was no evidence of the requisite intent to conceal or destroy relevant evidence or that plaintiff was “irreparably deprived of any meaningful ability to present his claim” and held that the trial court therefore abused its discretion in submitting a spoliation instruction, reversed the court of appeals' judgment and remanded the case for a new trial.
So, what do you think? Was the reversal of the ruling the right decision or should the sanction for spoliation of evidence have stood? Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.
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