Parties to lawsuits have some obligation to preserve or to not destroy evidence. If a party improperly destroys evidence, the other party may seek sanctions for “spoliation” of that evidence. The destruction does not have to be intentional. A court may still issue sanctions for spoliation of evidence that was negligently lost or destroyed. If a court determines the evidence was intentionally or willfully destroyed, it presumes the relevance of the evidence. If it was negligently destroyed, the party seeking sanctions must show relevance. Available sanctions vary, depending on the importance of the evidence, and can range from a jury instruction to dismissing the case.
The issue of spoliation recently arose in a case involving an automobile accident. The plaintiff was involved in two accidents less than three weeks apart. She sued the driver who rear-ended her in the first accident. The defendant accepted liability for the accident, but the parties did not agree on which accident caused the plaintiff’s alleged injuries.
The defendant moved for sanctions against the plaintiff for spoliation of evidence. The defendant argued the plaintiff disposed of her vehicle before his insurance company had a chance to inspect it. He argued the inspection was crucial to determining which accident caused the injuries the plaintiff claimed she had sustained. In seeking sanctions, the defendant had to show the plaintiff had a duty to preserve the vehicle and had a culpable state of mind, and the vehicle was relevant to and supported his defense.