Spoliation and Wrongful Death Cases
Spoliation is a hot button issue in Georgia and defense attorneys have begun sending out spoliation letters is basic car wreck cases insisting the Plaintiff keep the damaged car after an auto accident. Lawyers for the Plaintiff have a tough decision to make.
It's no problem where the Defendant's own insurance deals with the totaled care because they take possession. The problem arises where the Plaintiff's own insurance company takes charge of the repairs or salvage. The vehicle is not really under the Plaintiff's control in that situation and can lead to it going to the crusher without the Plaintiff's knowledge. In the case we discuss below, the problem is highlighted and the trial court issued the severe sanction of throwing the wrongful death case out of court as a sanction for allowing the car to be destroyed by the wrecker yard. Fortunately, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision and observed that in these facts, the destruction was just negligent and did not deserve the ultimate sanction of having the case thrown out.
The state appellate court issued an opinion in a Georgia car accident case discussing the spoliation doctrine, which can be used by a party to impose sanctions on an opposing party who destroys or fails to preserve relevant evidence in an upcoming trial. The court ultimately determined that although the plaintiff was under a duty to preserve the evidence at issue, because a third party destroyed it without the plaintiff’s knowledge or consent, the lower court was improper to dismiss the plaintiff’s case.
The Facts of the Case
According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff’s wife was killed in a car accident when she encountered standing water on the highway. Evidently, the woman lost control of the car as it hydroplaned and crashed into another vehicle. It was later discovered that the storm drain that was designed to remove water from the highway was clogged with debris. The plaintiff brought a personal injury lawsuit against the city in charge of maintaining that area of the road.
Evidently, the plaintiff’s vehicle was towed to a scrap yard following the accident. In a letter to the plaintiff, the scrap yard required the plaintiff to pay a storage fee; otherwise, the plaintiff's vehicle would be destroyed and sold for scrap. The plaintiff retained an attorney, who sent a letter to the scrap yard, introducing himself as the plaintiff’s attorney, and requesting that all future communication be sent to him. The attorney also instructed the scrap yard that the vehicle must be preserved for trial, and that there could be severe sanctions if it was destroyed.
According to the opinion, the plaintiff’s attorney reached out to the scrap yard a few weeks later to confirm receipt of the letter. During this conversation, the scrap yard did not indicate any payment was due. However, the following week the scrap yard sent another letter to the plaintiff, demanding immediate payment. The plaintiff did not receive the letter, and the vehicle was destroyed.
The defendant later filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s lawsuit based on his failure to preserve the car as evidence. The defendant argued that the lack of evidence severely prejudiced its ability to defend against the plaintiff’s case. The trial court agreed, dismissing the plaintiff’s claim, and the plaintiff appealed.On appeal, the court reversed the lower court’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s case. The court held that dismissal of a claim is an extreme remedy for a party’s spoliation of evidence, and should only be used in egregious examples. Here, the court explained that the scrap yard was a third-party, and not considered an agent of the plaintiff. In addition, the plaintiff’s attorney diligently contacted the scrap yard and followed up just a week before the car was destroyed. The court seemed bothered by the fact that the scrap yard did not notify the plaintiff’s attorney that payment was due immediately. Ultimately, the court explained that the plaintiff was, at most, negligent in failing to preserve the evidence and that any negligence on the plaintiff’s part did not warrant the outright dismissal of his case.
Have You Been Injured in a Georgia Car Accident?
If you or a loved one has recently been injured in a Georgia car accident, you may be entitled to monetary compensation for the injuries you have sustained. At the law office of Attorney Christopher M. Simon, we represent Georgia injury victims in a wide range of claims, including Georgia car accidents. To learn more, call 404-259-7635 to schedule a free consultation today.