eDiscovery Daily Blog

Court Denies Dueling Sanctions Motions from Both Plaintiffs and Defendants: eDiscovery Case Law

In Cox v. Swift Transportation Co. of Arizona, LLC, No. 18-CV-117-CVE-JFJ (N.D. Okla. Aug. 6, 2019), Oklahoma District Judge Jodi F. Jayne denied both the plaintiffs’ and defendants’ motion for sanctions for spoliation of evidence, finding no intent to deprive by either side to justify a sanction of either an adverse inference jury instruction or directed verdict (for the plaintiffs)/dismissal (for the defendants).

Case Background

In this case involving an accident between two tractor/trailers in which Plaintiff Adam Cox suffered severe injuries, both parties failed to preserve electronic data:

  • Defendant Swift Transportation Company (“Swift”) failed to preserve: (1) electronic control module (“ECM”) data of the Swift tractor/trailer driven by Defendant Sai Wai (“Wai”), which would have provided information regarding the speed of Wai’s vehicle at the time of the accident and any “Critical Event Report” prompted by hard braking or a sudden drastic change in speed; (2) messages delivered from Wai to Swift via the Qualcomm mobile communication system; and (3) Wai’s electronic driver “E-logs” for the 1.5 hours immediately prior to the accident, which were also stored electronically on the Qualcomm system.
  • Plaintiffs Adam and Kimberly Cox failed to preserve: (1) ECM data from Cox’s vehicle, which Defendants argue would have (a) provided information regarding the speed of Cox’s vehicle at the time of the accident, and (b) potentially bolstered its expert’s opinion that Cox failed to brake; and (2) Cox’s paper driver logs, which were on the dashboard at the time of the accident (“Logs”).

The plaintiffs filed a Motion for Sanctions Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37 for Defendant Swift’s Spoliation of Evidence, requesting two alternative sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(e): (1) a directed verdict on the issue of liability; or (2) an adverse inference jury instruction.  The defendants’ filed a Motion for Sanctions for Plaintiffs’ Spoliation of Evidence, requesting either the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ case or an adverse inference instruction regarding the spoliated evidence.

Judge’s Ruling

In considering the plaintiffs’ request for sanctions for failure to preserve the ECM Data/Qualcomm Messages, Judge Jayne stated: “After consideration of the record and the parties’ oral argument, the Court finds that Swift did not “act[] with the intent to deprive [Plaintiffs] of the information’s use in the litigation” and therefore declines to impose either of the severe sanctions requested by Plaintiffs…Swift’s stated reason for failing to download the ECM data or immediately place a litigation hold on evidence is adequately supported by [investigating Officer Jason] McCarthy’s investigation, conclusions, and report, and the Court finds no inference or indication that Swift engaged in bad faith or intentional conduct aimed at depriving Plaintiffs of this evidence.”

Citing defendant Swift’s explanation for failure to preserve 1.5 hours of E-Logs as caused by a failure to account for a Time Zone difference between Mountain and Central Time, Judge Jayne stated: “The Court finds this explanation plausible and consistent with the actual missing data. This explanation, at most, shows a negligent failure to retain by Swift. As explained above, negligent failures to retain evidence cannot support Plaintiffs’ requested sanctions in this case, and Plaintiffs’ motion for sanctions based on failure to preserve the missing E-logs is also denied.”

With regard to the defendants’ motion for sanctions, Judge Jayne stated “the Court easily concludes that Plaintiffs did not intentionally deprive Defendants of evidence or engage in any bad-faith conduct by failing to preserve the ECM data or the Logs. The engine, including the ECM device, was hauled away as debris from the scene of the accident by Environmental Remediation Services, Inc., (“ERS”), held for thirty days, and then sent to the scrap yard. Cox was in the hospital for five weeks following the accident. It strains reason to find that Plaintiffs acted with intent to deprive Defendants of this evidence when, at most, Plaintiffs failed to prevent another entity, ERS, from scrapping the engine pursuant to ERS’s own standard retention policy.”  She also characterized the plaintiffs’ explanation that the Logs on the dashboard were destroyed in the accident as “plausible” and stated: “Accordingly, Defendants’ requested sanctions of dismissal or an adverse inference instruction are denied.”

So, what do you think?  Should either party have attempted to obtain less severe sanctions instead?  Please let us know if any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Case opinion link courtesy of eDiscovery Assistant.

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