Plaintiffs filed a motion for sanctions and a motion in limine after Defendant destroyed evidence before trial. Defendant argued it destroyed the evidence in good faith as part of its routine retention policy.
Adverse jury instructions and attorney’s fees are appropriate sanctions following the destruction of evidence when there is a showing of bad faith.
Frank Stevenson and Rebecca Harshberger (Plaintiffs) sued Union Pacific Railroad Co. (Defendant) for negligence after Defendant’s train struck and killed Mrs. Stevenson. During discovery, Plaintiffs filed a motion for sanctions against Defendant for destroying evidence in the form of a voice tape conversation from the night of the accident and track maintenance records from the past two years. Defendant argued that sanctions were not proper because it destroyed the evidence in good faith. Plaintiff also filed a motion in limine to prohibit witnesses at trial from explaining Defendant’s good faith reason for destroying the evidence.
Did the lower court abuse its discretion by giving an adverse inference jury instruction and awarding attorneys’ fees against the Defendant ?
No, the lower court did not abuse its discretion by sanctioning the Defendant for destroying the voice tape. Yes, the lower court did abuse its discretion by sanctioning the Defendant for destroying track maintenance before litigation began. The lower court’s decision is affirmed in part and reversed in part and remanded for a new trial.
The Court first determined that the sanction, in the form of an adverse jury instruction regarding the voice tape the night of the accident, was proper because Defendant should have known litigation would occur following the accident, Defendant knew the tape would be important to any such litigation, and the tape was highly relevant to that litigation, indicating bad faith. Next, the Court found improper the adverse jury instruction regarding two years of track maintenance records destroyed according to a routine document retention policy before litigation began because there was no showing of bad faith; but the Court found proper adverse jury instructions regarding the destruction of track maintenance records after the lawsuit was initiated, with no need for a showing of bad faith under Rule 37. Next, the Court determined that the lower court erred by not permitted the Defendant to offer a rebuttal to jury instructions regarding the destruction of evidence because permissive inferences are subject to reasonable rebuttal and denying that rebuttal throughout the trial wrongly prejudiced the Defendant. Finally, the Court concluded that any attorney’s fees awarded as sanctions were proper so long as they were based on a showing of bad faith.