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Failure to Extend Preservation Hold to Headquarters Does Not Lead To Adverse Inference Sanction: eDiscovery Case Law

In Botey v. Green, et. al., No. 12-01520 (M.D. Pa., April 4, 2016), Pennsylvania District Judge Robert D. Mariani denied the plaintiff’s request for an adverse inference sanction for the defendants’ failure to preserve trucking logs related to an accident between the plaintiff and a truck driver working for the defendant’s company, but did agree not to allow the defendants to prove the contents of the destroyed documents by other means or argue their contents in dispositive motions or at trial.

Case Background

In this lawsuit arising out of a traffic accident between the plaintiff and a truck driver (Robert Green) working for the defendant’s company in May 2011 resulting in serious injury to the plaintiff, the parties originally planned to take the driver’s deposition during the normal discovery period.  However, in February 2014, it was determined that the truck driver suffered from dementia and was therefore unable to be deposed.  As a result, the plaintiff sought expanded discovery from the defendants thirty days’ worth of the truck driver’s trip documents and logs that the trucking company maintains for each of its truck drivers, whereas the defendants argued that the plaintiff was only entitled to logs going back 34 hours before the accident.  After telephone arguments, the Court compromised and ordered the defendants to provide fifteen days of logs.

However, the defendants only produced four additional days of logs, not the full fifteen that the Court ordered.  The plaintiff then filed a Motion for Sanctions, which requested “that an adverse inference jury instruction be read against Defendants at the time of trial” as well as “an Order precluding Defendants from arguing in dispositive motions that Plaintiff lacks evidence to prove his corporate negligence claims against Defendants FFE and Conwell based on the documents destroyed.”

The defendants’ trucking logs were administered and maintained by a third party vendor, which only stored the electronic data from the trucks for a period of six months before automatically deleting them. The plaintiff sent litigation hold letters as early as October 2011, but sent them to a local office in Norman, Oklahoma rather than to the defendants’ corporate office in Dallas, Texas and the defendants acknowledged that the letters were never forwarded to the corporate office.

Judge’s Ruling

Judge Mariani noted that “[u]nder Pennsylvania law, to determine the penalty for a spoliation of evidence claim, Plaintiff must show (1) the degree of fault of Defendant in altering or destroying the evidence (2) the degree of prejudice Plaintiff has suffered, and (3) the availability of a lesser sanction that will protect Defendant’s rights and deter future similar conduct.”

Having already found that the defendants were under a legal duty to preserve the logs, Judge Mariani ruled that “Plaintiff has not shown that he is entitled to the ‘adverse inference’ sanction”, noting that “Plaintiff does not explain what ‘adverse inference’ he wants.”  Continuing, Judge Mariani stated that “It is too great a leap to conclude that, if the destroyed records were preserved, they would have shown such evidence of a loss by Green of his mental faculties that Defendants would have been placed on notice that he was suffering from dementia and was likely to cause accidents and therefore advance Plaintiff’s negligence claims against FFE and Conwell.”

As a result, Judge Mariani denied the plaintiff’s request for an adverse inference sanction, noting that failure to preserve the logs “appears to be mainly carelessness in failing to preserve documents from destruction in the ordinary course of business”.  However, Judge Mariani also noted that “while the Court will not grant Plaintiff’s request for an adverse inference, it is only logical and fair that Defendants will not be allowed to rely on the missing records in support of any dispositive motions. This is for obvious reasons: Defendants cannot claim that information in records that was destroyed would exonerate them and expect the Court to permit such an argument.”

So, what do you think?  Should the defendants have received the requested adverse inference sanction?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

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