Pennsylvania District Court Denies Request For Adverse Inference Instruction Spoliation Sanction
Botey v. Green, et. al., Case No. 12-01520 (M.D. Pa., April 4, 2016) is a personal injury case in which Plaintiff alleged serious injury resulting from the negligence of defendant truck driver. Plaintiff was unable to depose the trucker after a determination that the trucker suffered from dementia. Plaintiff then sought expanded document production from the employer trucking company defendants, for the logs relative to the trucker for the period of 30 days preceding the accident. The expanded discovery was sought to support Plaintiff’s allegations that the trucker had begun to exhibit signs of dementia prior to the accident. The Court ordered production for the period of 15 days prior to the accident. Defendants could only produce four days’ worth of records, and Plaintiff moved for spoliation sanction, by adverse inference instruction.
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. Plaintiff sent litigation hold letters, however, the letters were sent to a local office rather than to Defendants’ corporate office; the local office claimed that the letters were never forwarded to the corporate office. The consequence of this gap in the transmission of the hold letter was that the corporate office did not make a request to the third party vendor to stop the automatic deletion of the trucker’s records.
The court analyzed the Pennsylvania law for determining degree of spoliation sanction, which consists of a three prong test: (1) Defendants’ degree of fault in the spoliation; (2) degree of prejudice Plaintiff suffered from the spoliation, and (3) availability of a lesser sanction that would protect Plaintiff’s rights. As to the first prong, although finding that the duty to preserve the records arose when the accident occurred (rather than from when delivery of the hold letter occurred), the Court determined that Defendants’ conduct in failing to stop the deletion of the logs by the third party vendor was negligent rather than willful. As to the second prong, the court found that the Plaintiff could not support his prejudice argument – that it would be “too great a leap” to conclude that the missing information would necessarily have put the trucking company Defendants on notice that the trucker’s behavior at that time posed an imminent safety hazard. Under the third prong of the legal test, the court found that a lesser sanction than an adverse inference instruction would suffice. The court ruled that Plaintiff’s interests could be protected by issuing an order that Defendants could not attempt to prove what the missing logs would have shown in their defense at trial.