Appeals Court Sanctions Defendants for Spoliation of Evidence

Preservation of evidence is essential in any personal injury lawsuit. No party to litigation may intentionally withhold, alter, destroy, or "spoil" evidence in an effort to prevent the other party (or the court) from obtaining access. A judge may impose sanctions if he or she determines there was spoliation of evidence.

A recentexample of this came from the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, in a personal injury lawsuit arising from a school bus accident. A woman working on the bus as an aide claimed she was injured when a payloader struck the bus while it was stopped and waiting to make a left-hand turn. The payloader had entered the road from a parking lot and failed to yield.

The aide sued the owner and driver of the payloader. Among other things, the defendants argued they were not negligent or liable for the accident because the payloader's brakes had failed. Erie County Supreme Court agreed with the defendants and granted them summary judgment on that issue. But the Fourth Department reversed that finding in a decision issued on November 14th of this year.

The appeals court first noted the defendants' inexplicable delay in raising their affirmative defense of brake failure—nearly two years after the plaintiff filed her lawsuit. That aside, the Fourth Department said the defendants could not raise this defense because of their own misconduct. The defendant driver replaced the allegedly faulty brake calipers following the accident. He failed to preserve the discarded brake calipers as potential evidence. By depriving the plaintiff of the chance to examine the key piece of evidence necessary to prove the defendants' "brake failure" defense, the Fourth Department said the defendants forfeited their right to pursue that line of argument.

If there is a reasonable expectation of litigation, a potential party to that litigation maintains a legal obligation to preserve any potentially relevant evidence. Here, the Fourth Department noted, the defendant driver "drove a 32,000-pound construction vehicle into a school bus filled with children, several of whom were removed from the scene in ambulances." The driver and his employer should have expected someone might file a lawsuit as a result of this incident, "and, therefore, they were on notice that the brake calipers might be needed for future litigation."

Having eliminated the "faulty brakes" defense, the Fourth Department went on to grant the plaintiff summary judgment on the issue of the defendants' negligence. There was no question the payloader illegally entered the roadway and collided with the bus. The payloader driver was negligent as a matter of law for failing to yield the right-of-way.

But the appeals court also found the plaintiff was not entitled to summary judgment on the issue of causation. That is, she failed to prove the accident was the direct cause of her alleged injuries. To the contrary, the defendants submitted evidence showing the plaintiff contributed to her injuries by her "position on the bus." At the time of the accident, she was not seated but "kneeling or standing" on the bus. Therefore, the trial court will need to determine whether this mitigates any potential damage award.

The principal lesson from this case is that courts will punish any attempt to undermine the litigation process through the spoliation of evidence. That is why if you are contemplating or facing litigation, it is imperative you work with an experienced New York accident attorney who can help you avoid unnecessary sanctions.Contact our office today if you have any questions.