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

In a property loss case involving a brand new hot tub that emptied over 200 gallons of water into an expensive townhouse, a broken connecting nut (2.5-inch plastic threaded nut) was found at the scene.  It was photographed by the repair team (poorly at that) and then handed to the Warranty Agent who was hired by the manufacturer.   The nut was discarded by the Warranty Agent and then later became a key focus of the manufacturer’s defense of the water loss claim.  The tub manufacturer claimed that the nut that appeared in the photos was not one that they had ever used in their manufacturing process and therefore, someone must have replaced it between the factory and the home where it was installed 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 and therefore, they would not be entitled to rely on any defense which might be rebutted by an inspection or examination of that actually 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 to assert a presumption that

1) identifies that the missing evidence was lost at the hand of the offending party and

2) that whatever evidence which would have been revealed by a physical inspection of the missing evidence would have been favorable to the non-offending party.  

This instruction is particularly damaging when the spoiled evidence is actually a document which has been lost.

We Are Here To Help

Following an occurrence of any kind (product defect, premises liability, automobile negligence), an assessment to identify any evidence which should be documented and/or preserved should be conducted early in the investigation.

For further advice on your specific needs, contact one of our attorneys for a consultation, 802-775-8800.

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