A key aspect of some tort claims involves preserving evidence. There are rules regarding how parties must go about maintaining records or locations that are important to the case. When a party destroys or alters this evidence, the other party can seek relief from the court in order to ensure that any proceeding litigation is fair to both sides.
In a recent case, an auto company purchased a commercial property that included a body shop on the premises, with auto repair, paint, and bodywork capabilities. The buyer also created a company to run the auto repair shop. A commercial property company entered into a lease with the buyer for the body shop and had a paint booth created. It hired another company to operate the paint booth equipment once it was finished. Soon thereafter, the auto shop suffered a fire that rendered it a total loss.
The buyer sued the seller, the paint booth operation company and other individuals, alleging that they acted negligently and wantonly in creating the fire that destroyed the facility. The paint booth operator alleged that the buyer decided to have the remains of the auto repair shop and equipment destroyed following the fire. It argued that this destroyed key evidence in the case regarding the allegations from the buyer that it was responsible for the fire and that it should have been given notice that the demolition was imminent so that it could have inspected the premises with experts to help build its defense. The paint booth company moved for summary judgment on these grounds.
The buyer opposed the motion for summary judgment, noting that inspections of the premises post-fire had already been completed by several experts and that some of these inspectors reached conclusions that did not implicate the paint booth operation company. It also alleged that the paint booth company failed to show that its defense was impaired as a result of the demolition and clearing of the premises.
In cases involving an alleged spoliation of evidence, the court must consider a variety of factors, including the culpability of the party who destroyed the evidence, the availability of sanctions less severe than dismissal, fundamental fairness, alternative sources of information, and the importance of the lost evidence. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the paint booth operation company, finding that there had been a spoliation of evidence. It concluded that the destroyed evidence was critical to the paint booth operation company’s defense and that in light of the buyer’s allegations that the paint booth operation company was responsible for the fire, the necessity of preserving the area should have been obvious.
On review, the appellate court reversed, finding that the evidence in the record did not justify dismissing the case in lieu of a less drastic measure. It determined that the paint booth operation company had not met its burden of showing that it suffered prejudice as a result of the demolition and site clearing. To prevail, the paint booth operation company needed to provide actual evidence to show that the destroyed evidence was essential to its defense even if other evidence such as expert reports of photographs existed. The paint booth operation company failed to offer evidence showing that the alternative sources of evidence regarding the scene were insufficient and failed to show that it would be fundamentally unfair to proceed with the litigation.
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