Recently, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a personal injury case dealing with the spoliation doctrine, which allows for a court to impose sanctions against a party who fails to preserve relevant evidence. The case presents an interesting issue for Maryland car accident victims in that it illustrates the range of consequences a party may face for failing to preserve evidence that is relevant to a pending legal proceeding.
The Facts of the Case
The plaintiff was the surviving husband of a woman who was killed in a car accident. According to the court’s opinion, the woman’s vehicle hydroplaned while driving over a portion of the road that was flooded due to a clogged storm drain. The plaintiff filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city that was charged with maintaining the storm drain. It was undisputed that the storm drain was on city property, although the city believed it to be on county property.
After the woman’s vehicle was towed to a scrap yard, the scrap yard owner sent the plaintiff a letter indicating that the vehicle was incurring daily storage fees. Shortly after receipt of this letter, the plaintiff retained counsel, who sent a letter to the scrap yard requesting the vehicle be preserved. Counsel followed up with a telephone call the next week, and was not told that preservation of the vehicle was dependent on the payment of fees. Counsel instructed the scrap yard to direct any questions to him.
Later that week, however, the scrap yard sent the plaintiff a letter the plaintiff’s mother’s house indicating that the vehicle would be destroyed if payment was not made. Counsel was not copied on the letter, and the plaintiff did not receive the letter. A few weeks later, counsel called the scrap yard to find out that the vehicle had been destroyed.
After finding out that the car was not preserved, the city moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s wrongful death claim on the basis that he failed to preserve relevant evidence and that the city was prejudiced as a result. The trial court agreed with the city, and dismissed the plaintiff’s case. The plaintiff appealed.
On appeal, the court reversed the lower court’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s case. The court held that a party’s destruction of relevant evidence might justify the dismissal of a case or claim, but only in “exceptional cases” where “the party acted in bad faith.” The court also explained that a party can only be held responsible for the destruction of evidence by a third party if the third party is acting as the party’s agent.
Here, the court held that the plaintiff did not act in bad faith and the scrap yard was not acting as the plaintiff’s agent when it destroyed the vehicle. The court noted that the plaintiff’s counsel requested the vehicle be preserved multiple times, and followed up on those requests. The court also noted that counsel had instructed the scrap yard to contact him – rather than the plaintiff – with any questions. Thus, the court held that, at most, the plaintiff was negligent and dismissal of his claims was not warranted.
Have You Been Involved in a Maryland Car Accident?
If you or a loved one has recently been injured in a Maryland car accident, you may be entitled to monetary compensation. However, as you can see from the above discussion, it is essential that all relevant evidence is appropriately preserved to avoid a spoliation problem. This rule applies to both plaintiffs and defendants, and the sooner a case is filed, the better the chance of ensuring that all necessary evidence will be available. At the law firm of Lebowitz & Mzhen, LLC we represent injury victims in all types of Maryland car accident claims, and have a proven track record of success. To learn more, call 410-654-3600 to schedule a free consultation today.
More Blog Posts:
How Strict Liability Applies in Maryland Dog Bite Cases, Maryland Accident Law Blog, October 15, 2018.
Maryland Does Not Allow Dram Shop or Social Host Liability, Maryland Accident Law Blog, October 1, 2018.