Litigants in New Mexico negligence lawsuits risk losing or damaging their cases if they engage in spoliation, which is the intentional destruction, mutilation, alteration or concealment of evidence. Whether and to what extent to sanction a litigant for spoliation is up to the trial court. In a recent ruling by the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico, the court concluded that dismissal of the plaintiff’s case for spoliation and imposition of other sanctions sought by the defendant were not warranted.
The ruling was made in the context of a lawsuit brought by a company that repaired its concrete pumping truck following an accident on Interstate 40, allegedly caused by the driver of a tractor-trailer. The plaintiff alleged that the driver of the tractor-trailer that struck the plaintiff’s concrete pumping truck was distracted at the time of the accident by looking in his vehicle’s rear-view mirror. The plaintiff sought damages in the amount of $26,000 to reimburse it for repairs and also sought to recover lost profits in the amount of $58,000 for the time during which the truck was out of service.
The defendant moved to dismiss the case on the basis that the plaintiff had engaged in spoliation by beginning repairs on the truck on the day after the accident. The defendant argued that this resulted in allegedly critical evidence relating to liability and damages ceasing to exist. Alternatively, the defendant asked for the imposition of a sanction less severe than dismissal of the plaintiff’s case.
The district court explained that courts assess two factors when considering whether to impose a sanction on a litigant. The first factor is the degree of culpability of the party that allegedly lost or destroyed the evidence at issue. The second factor courts consider is the degree of actual prejudice to the party seeking the imposition of the sanction. The court further explained that district courts have the discretion to impose various remedies for violations of the prohibition against spoliation.
Among the remedies that district courts can order are dismissal of a complaint, imposition of monetary damages, and an adverse inference instruction. An adverse inference instruction is an instruction to the fact-finder in a civil case (which can be a judge or jury, depending on the situation) that the fact-finder may draw an inference that the evidence destroyed was unfavorable to the party responsible for its spoliation.
In this case the court decided not to sanction the plaintiff. The court reasoned that the desire to repair the plaintiff’s concrete pumping truck did not involve bad faith. The repairs, in the court’s view, not only made the case harder to defend but also made it harder for the plaintiff to support its claims than it would have been if the plaintiff waited for an investigation before having the truck repaired. The court also considered prejudice to the parties from the immediate repair of the truck. The court reasoned that had the plaintiff waited for an independent investigation before having the truck repaired then the amount of the plaintiff’s lost profits would have increased. Further, the court reasoned that, while the defendant might not have the best evidence to defend against the plaintiff’s claims, the plaintiff’s ability to present a case for liability and damages was also hindered. The court concluded that the plaintiff could have done a better job preserving evidence but that its conduct did not warrant dismissal or the imposition of an adverse inference instruction.
If you or a loved one has sustained personal injuries or property damage in an accident, there may be grounds for a recovery of monetary damages from parties who are responsible. In some situations, a recovery of punitive damages may be available. Collecting damages can help people cover expenses they would not have incurred absent the accident. To understand more about your case and how your case can be pursued to maximize your financial recovery, call New Mexico personal injury lawyer Matthew Vance at the Law Office of Matthew Vance, P.C. We provide a free consultation and can be reached at (505) 242-6267 or online.