The defendant in this lawsuit allowed a key item to be destroyed and sold for scrap – after it had notice that the item was relevant to discovery requests. The court ordered an award of attorney fees and costs and also permitted plaintiff an adverse inference instruction to be read to the jury.
This is a breach of contract case. TVI sued Harmony Enterprises and alleged that a baler manufactured by Harmony was defective. Defendant sold the baler for scrap.
It is undisputed that Defendant had control over the Mt. Vernon baler when it sold it for scrap, and Defendant does not dispute that the Mt. Vernon baler was relevant to this litigation. (See Dkt. No. 30 at 1, 7-9.) Defendant argues that it did not have an obligation to preserve the Mt. Vernon baler and could not have acted with a culpable state of mind because Plaintiff asked Defendant to dispose of it on October 3, 2017. (Dkt. No. 30 at 8-9; see Dkt. No. 20 at 8.) But Plaintiff’s initial request was followed by multiple indications that Defendant had a duty to preserve the Mt. Vernon baler, including Plaintiff’s October 10, 2017 letter reserving its right to pursue legal or equitable remedies related to the Mt. Vernon baler’s failure and Defendant’s own inspection of the Mt. Vernon baler that revealed unnecessary welds that contributed to its failure. (See id. at 2-4, 31-32; Dkt. No. 21 at 14-15, 25.) Further, Defendant shared a summary of its inspection with its counsel, who may have informed Defendant of the possibility of future litigation. (Dkt. No. 21 at 20-22.) All of this occurred while Defendant was still in possession of the Mt. Vernon baler. (See Dkt. No. 21 at 19.) Thus, Defendant was on notice of its obligation to preserve the Mt. Vernon baler, and consciously disregarded that obligation when it sold the Mt. Vernon baler for scrap. See Apple Inc., 888 F. Supp. 2d. at 989, 998; Surowiec, 790 F. Supp. 2d at 1005. The Court finds that Plaintiff has carried its burden of establishing that Defendant spoliated the Mt. Vernon baler….
Defendant had exclusive control over the Mt. Vernon baler, was on notice of the obligation to preserve it, and consciously disregarded its obligation by selling the baler for scrap. See supra. Plaintiff has been substantially prejudiced by Defendant’s destruction of the Mt. Vernon baler, as Plaintiff cannot conduct its own examination following Defendant’s disclosures about the reasons for the baler’s failure during discovery. See Apple Inc., 888 F. Supp. 2d at 992. Thus, the Court finds that an adverse jury instruction regarding Defendant’s spoliation of the Mt. Vernon baler is an appropriate sanction. The instruction shall inform the jury that Defendant was on notice that it had an obligation to preserve the Mt. Vernon baler, that Defendant destroyed the Mt. Vernon baler before Plaintiff could inspect it, that the Mt. Vernon baler was relevant to Plaintiff’s claims, and that an inspection of the Mt. Vernon baler would have corroborated Plaintiff’s claim that it was defective.
Defendant then moved for reconsideration. That motion was denied. The explanation:
Defendant moves for reconsideration of the Court’s order, arguing that the Court committed manifest error in imposing its spoliation sanction and awarding Plaintiff attorney fees. (See generally Dkt. No. 42.) ….Defendant contends that the Court committed manifest error when it found that Plaintiff is entitled to an adverse jury instruction following Defendant’s spoliation of the Mt. Vernon baler. (Dkt. No. 42 at 10-13.) Defendant argues that the Court erred by looking only to Defendant’s conscious disregard of its discovery obligations to determine that Defendant’s degree of fault warranted an adverse jury instruction. (See id. at 10-12.) But the Court’s order looked beyond Defendant’s conscious disregard in finding that an adverse jury instruction was warranted. Specifically, the Court considered: Defendant’s exclusive control over the Mt. Vernon baler; Defendant’s substantial prior notice that it had an obligation to preserve the Mt. Vernon baler; and Defendant’s subsequent conscious disregard of that obligation when it sold the Mt. Vernon baler for scrap. (See Dkt. No. 39 at 2-3, 6.) Defendant’s remaining arguments opposing the Court’s evaluation of Defendant’s degree of fault simply restate those it raised in its response to Plaintiff’s original motion. (Compare Dkt. No. 42 at 11-12, with Dkt. No. 30 at 8-9.) Thus, Defendant has not identified a manifest error in the Court’s evaluation of Defendant’s degree of fault in spoliating the Mt. Vernon baler. See Premier Harvest, Case No. C17-0784-JCC, Dkt. No. 61 at 1; W.D. Wash. Local Civ. R. 7(h)(1).
The case is TVI, Inc. v. Harmony Enterprises, Inc. Case No. C18-1461-JCC. (D. W.D. Washington).
This case is instructive for any lawyer handling litigation involving an allegedly defective product. Preserve the product until both sides have had an opportunity to examine it. Failing to preserve the product risks a spoliation of evidence instruction to the jury and an award of fees and costs.