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Brookshire Bros., Ltd. v. Aldridge – Supreme Court of Texas Clarifies Rules on Evidence Spoliation

In its July 3, 2014 decision, the Supreme Court of Texas clarified the standards surrounding spoliation finding that the trial judge alone can decide whether or not spoliation occurred and with the exception of extreme cases, jurors may not be told that evidence was lost. The court emphasized that a “fundamental tenet” of our legal system is that every trial be decided upon the merits of the case. However in cases when spoliation of evidence is at issue, a “severe” spoliation sanction such as a spoliation jury instruction can shift the focus away from the merits of the case. Further, when a jury is presented with spoliation evidence the jury verdict can be “unfairly skewed” and a judgment can be based upon the conduct of the parties rather than the facts of the case. The court noted that with propensity to tilt a trial in favor of a non-spoliating party, the spoliation instruction can be “tantamount to a death penalty sanction.”

In this slip and fall case, the plaintiff fell after falling near a display case of rotisserie chicken in a Brookside Brothers grocery store. The fall was recorded by a surveillance camera and the store retained and copied eight minutes of the video, beginning before the plaintiff entered the store and ending shortly after his fall. A year later, plaintiff’s attorney requested two and a half hours of the surveillance video which the store could not provide as it had been recorded over a year earlier. The plaintiff argued that the failure to preserve additional video footage was spoliation of evidence that would have been helpful to determine if the spill had been on the floor long enough to be discovered by the store. At trial “significant emphasis” was placed on defendant’s failure to preserve the entire video and the jury was given a spoliation instruction and allowed to determine if spoliation occurred when deliberating on the merits of the lawsuit.” The jury found in favor of the plaintiff. The court of appeals affirmed, holding that the trial court did not err by admitting evidence of spoliation or by charging the jury with a spoliation instruction.

When reviewing the case, the Texas Supreme Court held that a spoliation analysis must involve a two-step judicial process. The trial court must determine if an act of spoliation has occurred. To make that conclusion it must determine that the party had a duty to reasonable reserve evidence and the party “intentionally or negligently” breached the duty by failing to preserve evidence. After the trial court determines that spoliation has occurred it has broad discretion to impose an appropriate remedy that is directly related to the conduct giving rise to the sanction and “may not be excessive.” The trial judge alone must make the decision regarding spoliation and associate sanctions without the presence of the jury
The court noted further that harsh remedy of a spoliation jury instruction is only warranted when the spoliating party acted with the intent of concealing evidence and a less severe remedy could not reduce the prejudice resulting from the spoliation. The court clarified that “intentional spoliation “stating that it means that the party acted with the “subjective purpose” of concealing or destroying discoverable evidence. This included the concept of “‘willful blindness,’” as when a party does not directly destroy evidence known to be relevant and discoverable, but nonetheless “allows for its destruction.”

In this case, the court found that there is no evidence that the defendant failed to save the additional video footage with the requisite intent to conceal or destroy relevant evidence or that the plaintiff was irreparable deprived of any meaningful ability to present his claim. The court held that the trial court therefore abused its discretion in submitting a spoliation instruction the judgment of the court of appeals was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.

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