Court Refuses to Enter Default Judgment Where Defendant Negligently Destroyed Video of Slip and Fall

8 Jan 2018

Learn more about eDiscovery from our blogsIn Patrick v. Tractor Supply, Co., No. 16-10755, (E.D. La., 2017), Plaintiff in a slip-and-fall case moves for default judgment due to Defendant’s spoliation of evidence.

On May 27, 2016, following a slip-and-fall incident that occurred on November 7, 2015, Plaintiff filed suit against Defendant. Plaintiff alleges that while visiting Defendant’s store she tripped and fell over rope and/or cable wire in the aisles and walkways. Plaintiff says that she suffered injuries which required extensive medical treatment, including knee surgery. Plaintiff seeks past, present, and future damages for medical expenses, pain and suffering, disability, lost income, and other yet undetermined damages.

Plaintiff argues that Defendant “willfully and intentionally” destroyed or disposed of relevant video footage after it received Plaintiff’s written demand, and thus a sanction for spoliation is appropriate. The manager confirmed the third-party claims administrator who stores and maintains video footage keeps all footage for three months before it is destroyed. Plaintiff says she sent a letter to the security firm on January 21, 2016, less than three months after the accident, requesting that all video footage related to the incident be preserved. However, when Plaintiff requested the video during discovery, Defendant explained that it no longer existed.

Plaintiff contends that the video would include direct evidence regarding when the manager checked the aisles before opening the store, and this evidence would resolve the question of how long the hazard was present before the accident, and therefore whether Defendant had constructive notice of the hazardous condition. Plaintiff argues that sanctions are warranted because Defendant acted in bad faith—it knew the video existed, even received a formal demand to preserve the footage, and still destroyed relevant evidence. Thus, Plaintiff seeks a default judgment, an order striking the Defendant’s pleadings, or an adverse inference in this case.

Defendant argues that it had no duty to retain footage that did not depict the accident. Defendant says on January 21, 2016 its claims department received a letter from Plaintiff’s counsel requesting that “footage of the incident” be preserved. Immediately after receiving the email, the claims adjuster responded, “There is no video at this location in the area of your client’s alleged fall.” According to the claims department, it never received additional correspondence requesting footage, and eventually the video was taped over, in accordance with the claim adjuster’s policies. Defendant argues the party alleging spoliation has the burden of proving the accused party had a duty to preserve evidence, that evidence was relevant, and it was destroyed in bad faith. Defendant contends Plaintiff was not prejudiced by its unavailability. The lawsuit was not filed until May 27, 2016, long after the video had been destroyed, so Defendant did not have a duty to preserve the footage. Finally, it was destroyed in accordance with company policy, and not in bad faith.

Under Rule 37, a court may issue an order imposing an array of sanctions if a party “fails to obey an order to provide or permit discovery.” Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 37(b)(2)(A). Here, where the alleged conduct occurred prior to the commencement of litigation, federal law provides that a trial court may exercise its discretion to impose sanctions on a party responsible for the spoliation (i.e. intentional destruction) of relevant evidence. For the spoliation of evidence doctrine to apply, the movant must prove two elements: that the party who had control over the evidence had a duty to preserve it at the time the evidence was destroyed; and that the destruction of evidence was intentional.

Based on the undisputed facts, Defendant was aware that Plaintiff intended to file a suit no later than January 21, 2016. The Court finds the evidence in question was relevant to this litigation, so the Court’s analysis will focus on whether its destruction occurred in bad faith. When contacted by Plaintiff’s counsel, the claims administrator explained it did not have any footage of the area of the alleged accident. Plaintiff did not identify any additional footage she was seeking.

Plaintiff says the footage showed Plaintiff after the accident, and may have demonstrated when the store manager inspected the area. While the Court agrees this information may have been relevant to the case, it does not demonstrate that the Defendant acted in bad faith by destroying the video surveillance in accordance with its normal retention policy. Defendant’s failure to retain the footage was not the result of a directed action to delete the information but rather a failure to stop the automatic deletion process. This action amounts to negligence and does not rise to the level of bad faith.

The court denied Plaintiff’s Motion to Strike Pleadings and refused to enter an adverse inference instruction, noting that Plaintiff shall be permitted to admit evidence of the discovery issues surrounding the video surveillance at trial.

ILS–Plaintiff ESI Discovery Experts