The Texas Supreme Court issued its opinion in Brookshire Brothers, Ltd. v. Jerry Aldridge on July 3, 2014 governing spoliation of evidence and a trial court’s duties. Brookshire Brothers, Ltd. v. Jerry Aldridge, ___S.W.3d___ (Tex. 2014) (Case No. 10-0846 July 3, 2014). Brookshire involved a slip-and-fall premises-liability case in which the trial court issued a spoliation instruction to the jury when the store owner retained the requested portion of the surveillance footage (i.e. the time the plaintiff entered and departed store only) but allowed additional footage to be automatically erased. Aldridge argued that the additional footage would have been helpful to the key issue of whether the substance that caused Aldridge to slip-and-fall was on the floor long enough to give Brookshire Brothers a reasonable opportunity to discover it.
The trial court allowed the jury to hear evidence bearing on whether Brookshire Brothers spoliated the video, submitted a spoliation instruction to the jury presuming that the evidence would have been unfavorable to Brookshire, and permitted the jury to decide whether spoliation occurred during its deliberations on the merits of the lawsuit. The jury a returned verdict against Brookshire Brothers in excess of a million dollars and Brookshire Brothers appealed, alleging, among other things, that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting evidence of spoliation or charging the jury with a spoliation instruction. The court of appeals affirmed and found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion.
In a lengthy opinion, the Supreme Court of Texas reversed the trial court, remanded the case for a new trial and held that the imposition of the severe sanction of the spoliation instruction was an abuse of discretion and held that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of the circumstances of the spoliating conduct. Brookshire Brothers, Ltd. v. Jerry Aldridge, ___S.W.3d____(Tex. 2014)(Case No. 10-0846 July 3, 2014). The Supreme Court also clarified the standards governing whether an act of spoliation has occurred and the parameters of a trial court’s discretion to impose a remedy upon finding spoliation, including the submission of a spoliation instruction to the jury.
The Supreme Court held that a spoliation analysis involves a two-step judicial process: (1) the trial court must determine whether a party spoliated evidence; and (2) if spoliation occurred, the court must assess an appropriate remedy. To conclude that a party spoliated evidence, the trial court must find that (1) the spoliating party had a duty to reasonably preserve evidence, and (2) the party intentionally or negligently breached that duty by failing to do so. Further, spoliation findings and their related sanctions are to be determined by the trial court outside the presence of the jury in order to prevent unfair prejudice that is unrelated to the facts of the lawsuit. The Supreme Court acknowledged that a trial court has a “spectrum of remedies” that may be imposed for spoliation but held that a spoliation instruction is warranted only when the trial court finds that the spoliating party acted with specific intent of concealing discoverable evidence, and that a less severe remedy would be insufficient to resolve the prejudice caused by the spoliation. The Supreme Court further held that a failure to preserve evidence with a negligent mental state may only underlie a spoliation instruction in the rare situation in which a non- spoliating party has been “irreparably deprived of any meaningful ability to present a claim or defense.”
This case is a must read for all trial lawyers, especially with the technology in existence today concerning automatic destruction programs as part of a document retention plan. The opinions in this blog are solely the author’s and any comments, replies and suggestions may be sent to John@jrjoneslaw.com.