When Is the Sanction of An Adverse Inference Appropriate?

When Is the Sanction of An Adverse Inference Appropriate?

The sanction of an adverse inference is appropriate, but not mandatory, in cases involving the negligent destruction of evidence.  The court will determine on a case-by-case basis whether sanctions are appropriate where a party negligently destroyed evidence.  However, the court is more likely to impose sanctions when a discovery obligation is breached through bad faith or gross negligence rather than ordinary negligence. 

In Schulman v. Saloon Beverage, Inc., Schulman (the “Plaintiff”) sued Saloon Beverage, Inc. (the “Defendant”) under Vermont’s Dram Shop Act for allegedly serving Mark Clarke, a drunken patron, four Sierra Nevada draft beers approximately ten minutes before he collided head on with the Plaintiff’s car.  The Defendant contended that Clarke was not at its saloon on the night of the accident.  The only documentary evidence available to prove Clarke was at the saloon were the records of checks because Clarke allegedly paid in cash.       

The Plaintiff filed a Rule 37 motion seeking sanctions for failing to preserve or permitting the destruction of the checks.  The Plaintiff alleged that the Defendant failed to produce all of the check receipts for the night in question.  After the Defendant produced printed copies of all the check receipts, the Plaintiff then alleged that the Defendant destroyed or altered the evidence because the check receipts contradicted other evidence which showed that Clarke was at the saloon.  The Plaintiff wanted to prove that the Defendant altered the receipts by analyzing the electronically stored information (“ESI”) in original format; however, the computers were not preserved when the saloon went out of business.        

The issue in this case concerned whether the Plaintiff established its spoliation claim against the Defendant for destroying the ESI.  A prerequisite to a spoliation claim is that the sought-after evidence actually existed and was destroyed.  In order to obtain an adverse inference instruction regarding the loss or destruction of evidence, a party must establish:  (1) that the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; (2) that the records were destroyed with a culpable state of mind; and (3) that the destroyed evidence was relevant to the party’s claim or defense such that a reasonable trier of fact could find that it would support that claim or defense.

In Schuman, the Plaintiff established that the Defendant negligently destroyed the ESI.  There was no dispute that the check receipts were relevant because they involved the disputed issue of whether Clarke was at the saloon.  The court found that the Defendant either knew or should have known that the ESI would be relevant to litigation because the Defendant was on notice when the Plaintiff made a claim in the Defendant’s bankruptcy proceedings.  Furthermore, the court concluded that the ESI was destroyed through ordinary negligence, a culpable state of mind.  Although the Plaintiff established that the Defendant negligently destroyed the ESI, the court still held that an adverse inference instruction was not appropriate because the Plaintiff’s suggestion of prejudice was based on conjecture.  Instead of imposing the sanction, the court merely held that evidence of the destruction of the ESI may be admissible at trial.

The sanction of an adverse inference is not mandatory in cases involving the negligent destruction of evidence.  The court has the discretion to determine whether the sanction is appropriate where a party negligently destroys evidence on a case-by-case approach.  A party seeking an adverse inference instruction should attempt to bolster its claim by establishing that the other party breached a discovery obligation through bad faith or gross negligence.     

Gary Discovery received a B.S. in Business Administration, with a concentration in Finance from the Bartley School of Business at Villanova University.  He will receive his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2015.  After graduation, Gary will clerk for a presiding civil judge in the Superior Court of New Jersey.

Comments (6):

  1. In this case I think a major issue is the requirement that the Defendant either knew or should have known that the ESI would be relevant to litigation. Here, the Defendant handed over physical copies of the check but might not have understood the concept of megadata on the computer system that could have provided additional information that a paper check could not provide. Courts need to determine whether the Defendant’s age and/or familiarity to computer systems and megadata should be considered n determining the reasonableness of the Defendant; this could provide different outcomes for the prong requiring that the Defendant know or SHOULD have known that the ESI would be relevant. For tort liability, things such as age would be considered in the reasonable person standard, so should it also be considered for ESI spoliation purposes?

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