Preservation of Evidence and the Doctrine of “Spoliation”
Product manufacturers with any litigation experience understand the rules and importance of preserving evidence following a loss.
Terms like “chain of custody” and “evidence retention” are common in discussions on these types of cases. However, other types of claims, even auto tort cases, also bear litigation duties. Which if not followed carefully, can severely handicap your efforts and even cause your claim or defense to fail entirely.
Products Liability, Premises Liability, Automobile Negligence
Let’s discuss a property loss case involving a new hot tub that emptied over 200 gallons of water into an expensive townhouse. A broken connecting nut was at the scene. (A 2.5-inch plastic threaded nut.) Documentation of the nut took place through a poor picture taken by the repair team.The nut ended up in the posse Warranty Agent; hired by the manufacturer. The nut was discarded by the Warranty Agent and later became a key focus of the manufacturer’s defense. Regarding the water loss claim. The tub manufacturer claimed that the nut in the photos was not one they had ever used in their manufacturing process.
Therefore, someone must have replaced it between the factory and the home. Where the installation happened at the time of the loss. Extensive briefing and a full evidentiary hearing on the chain of custody of the lost nut, and the legal status of the Warranty Agent, as an agent of the manufacturer, resulted in a court ruling that the manufacturer had committed spoliation of this evidence. As a result, they were not entitled to rely on any defense which might be rebutted by an inspection or examination of the broken nut.
Vermont Premises Liability Lawyer
Remedies for spoliation events include limitations and possible dismissal of entire claims or defenses. As well as other sanctions. One very powerful sanction may have the trial judge issue an instruction at the close of evidence. This asserts the presumption that; 1) identifies that the missing evidence became lost at the hand of the offending party. And; 2) whatever evidence which would be revealed by a physical inspection of the missing evidence would have been favorable to the non-offending party. This instruction is particularly damaging. Especially when the spoiled evidence is actually a lost document.
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Following an occurrence of any kind (product defect, premises liability, automobile negligence), an assessment to identify any evidence which requires documentation and/or preserved needs conducted early in the investigation.