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Plaintiff’s Motion for Sanctions on Spoliation of Evidence Grounds Is Denied
Mahaffey v. Marriott International, Inc.
This opinion arose from Plaintiff’s Motion for Sanctions against Marriott International, Inc. (“Marriott”), for alleged spoliation of evidence. The underlying tort case stemmed from a personal injury allegedly sustained by the Plaintiff. Plaintiff claimed that, while exiting the elevator of the hotel in his motorized scooter, the elevator violently lurched, throwing him off the scooter, and causing the scooter to land on top of him, resulting in serious injury.
Plaintiff claims that a bell hop came to his assistance and that a security guard came to his room after he called the front desk to complain of his injuries and seek medical assistance. There was no evidence that any investigation of the occurrence was ever conducted at that time. About a month after the alleged incident, Plaintiff’s then-counsel sent a demand letter to Marriott, which set forth the name of the Plaintiff and the date of the alleged incident, but contained no other information about the nature of the incident, where it occurred, or Plaintiff’s claimed injuries. Marriott did not have any evidence that it received the demand letter, and there was no evidence that Marriott conducted any sort of investigation after receipt of the demand letter. Sometime after the filing of the present suit, the room where Marriott kept loss prevention documents flooded. Neither party knew whether any documents relevant to the action were amongst the documents destroyed in the flood.
Plaintiffs’ sanctions motion alleged that Marriott destroyed several documents that it was obligated to preserve. The alleged documents were: surveillance video of the lobby on the day of the alleged accident; the demand letter and the mail log that would indicate receipt of the demand letter; incident reports or other investigative records of the alleged accident involving Plaintiff; and other incident reports or investigative records concerning possible problems the elevator at issue may have had prior to the alleged accident.
The Court remarked that a party has a duty to preserve potentially relevant evidence once they anticipate litigation, and that a party who fails to do so runs the risk of being accused of spoliation. Spoliation is the “destruction or material alteration of evidence or the failure to preserve property for another’s use as evidence in pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation.” The sanctions for the destruction of documents or evidence with notice of their potential usefulness in litigation may include attorney’s fees and costs, preclusion of certain lines of argument that might be advanced by the culpable party, and/or the issuance of a jury instruction informing jurors that they may draw an adverse inference from the spoliator’s actions. In order to demonstrate that an adverse inference instruction is warranted, the requesting party must show that: (1) the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it when it was destroyed or altered; (2) the destruction or loss was accompanied by a “culpable state of mind;” and, (3) the evidence that was destroyed or altered was “relevant” to the claims or defenses of the party that sought the discovery of the spoliated evidence, to the extent that a reasonable fact finder could conclude that the lost evidence would have supported the claims or defense of the party that sought it.
The Court concluded that Marriott should have preserved evidence like loss prevention documents concerning Plaintiffs’ claims after receipt of the demand letter. As to the video, though, which Marriott contended was over-written as early as twelve days after the incident, the Court concluded there was no duty to preserve it, since the demand letter did not specify which area of the hotel was involved, and Marriott could not have reasonably known that the surveillance video needed to be preserved.
The loss prevention documents which should have been preserved, if they existed, included: 1) investigative reports of the incident or 2) previous problems with the elevator. There was no evidence, however, that an investigation was ever conducted. Tellingly, Plaintiff did not claim he was ever contacted or interviewed as part of an investigation, and to the Court, it was unlikely that a loss prevention investigation would have taken place without an attempt to take Plaintiff’s statement. In addition, although documents reflecting previous problems with the elevator could have been critical to liability, neither Marriott nor Plaintiff put forth any evidence that any such documents ever existed. Moreover, even if they did exist, Marriott did not have a “culpable” state of mind in destroying any such documents, since any such documents, if they existed at all, were destroyed in an accidental flood that was no fault of Marriott, and which preceded the deadline for initial disclosures and discovery in the case.
In light of the above analysis, the Court concluded that no discovery sanctions were warranted against Marriott on the grounds of spoliation of evidence.
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