Linda Riley and James Riley v. Marriott International, Inc., NY District Court Imposes Adverse Inference Sanction for Defendants “Gross Negligence” Resulting in Spoliation of Evidence and Prejudice to Plaintiffs

Plaintiffs asserted claims for negligence arising from a slip and fall accident suffered by Linda Riley at a Marriott hotel in Lahaina, Hawaii. The Rileys made a motion for summary judgment and also sought sanctions for evidence spoliation.

The Rileys claimed that Linda Riley slipped and fell on a wet garage floor because the Marriott failed to take reasonable steps to prevent the fall by cleaning up the accumulated water, providing a non-slip surface or providing warning signs. The hotel’s loss prevention manager testified that the area is video recorded throughout the day, recordings are stored on a hard drive and then maintained for 30 days at which point they are overwritten. The manager also testified that he reviewed the video from the camera monitoring the area of Linda Riley’s fall and it showed the area prior to the fall taking place, the fall, Ms. Riley’s removal from the area in a wheelchair and hotel employees cleaning up the water and setting up wet floor signs. The loss prevention manager also stated that once notified of a potential claim against the hotel, he is responsible for preserving information relating to the claim and that this video was turned over to the liability insurance carrier.

The Rileys contended that Marriott provided them with incomplete video footage which commenced a minute before the accident and ended when Ms. Riley was placed in a wheelchair. Plaintiffs argued that they needed the video footage of the area prior to the accident occurring to show when and how much water pooled on the floor and the length of time it was there before Ms. Rileys’ accident took place. They also felt the video footage would show if the hotel employees monitored the area or observed the wet floor conditions. In addition to the video, the Rileys asserted that the Marriott kept maintenance logs called “sweep sheets” documenting scheduled floor cleanings and that these logs would help determine the issues of Marriott’s notice of the condition of the floor, as well as its duty to warn patrons and fix the condition. The Rileys contended that Marriott destroyed the sweep sheets for the relevant time period.

Marriott opposed the motion for sanctions arguing that the Rileys failed to demonstrate prejudice resulting from the destruction of the sweep logs and video footage. Marriott neither denied that the sweep logs and video footage existed nor that they had a duty to preserve them. Marriott failed to provide any justification for their destruction.

In its reasoning, the court cited Residential Funding Corp. v. DeGeorge Fin. Corp., 306 F. 3d. at 107 and noted that the party bringing a spoliation motion must demonstrate that: 1) the party charged with destroying the evidence had an obligation to preserve it; 2) the records were destroyed with a “culpable state of mind;” and 3) the destroyed evidence was relevant to the party’s claim or defense.

Addressing Marriott’s duty to preserve, the court noted both that the loss prevention manager testified he was aware of his obligation to preserve the evidence and that there was no question that the video footage showing the scene of the accident and the sweep logs were relevant. The court therefore concluded that Marriott had a duty to preserve both the sweep logs and the video footage.

Turning to the issue of culpability, the court noted, “a finding of gross negligence will satisfy the culpable state of mind requirement, as will knowing or negligent destruction of evidence.” The court indicated that Marriott failed to offer any reason for not maintaining the video or the logs, or provide any facts concerning how or why the evidence was destroyed. The court observed that even though it was facing a motion for sanctions, Marriott either failed to investigate the destruction of the relevant evidence and if they did investigate, they did not explain the results of their investigation. The court concluded that Marriott’s failure to provide sworn facts regarding the destruction of the challenged evidence demonstrated “such a lack of diligence that it suggests bad faith destruction.” The court also concluded that Marriott’s failure to preserve the entire video footage surrounding Linda Riley’s accident, as well as the relevant sweep log, in spite of the loss prevention manager’s testimony that he was aware of his duty to reserve the relevant evidence is “at a minimum, gross negligence.”

When weighing the imposition of sanctions, the court noted that prior to imposing sanctions such as dismissal, preclusion or adverse inference, it must consider whether or not the innocent party suffered prejudice resulting from the loss of the evidence. The court was able to “easily conclude” that the destruction of the sweep logs and video footage prejudiced the Rileys. The court concluded that Marriott’s failure to explain the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the evidence supports the finding that the evidence was destroyed through gross negligence therefore permitting an inference that the missing evidence was unfavorable to Marriott. The court further found that the video footage from both before and after Ms. Riley’s accident was relevant to demonstrating the condition of the floor, how long the floor was in that condition and whether or not Marriott’s employees had actual or constructive notice of the conditions. The court also noted that sweep logs could demonstrate if and when Marriott employees were near the accident on the day it occurred and would be relevant to the issue of actual or constructive notice. The court therefore found that under the circumstances, a finding of prejudice was warranted.

The court interpreted the Rileys’ request for sanctions as a request for the court to either strike Marriott’s answer or impose an adverse inference instruction. Finding that striking Marriott’s answer was too drastic a remedy, the court concluded that an adverse inference instruction was appropriate and sufficient to deter Marriott from similar future conduct and would shift the risk of an erroneous judgment to Marriott and restore the position of the Rileys in this case. The court held that the Rileys were entitled an adverse inference instruction that “would permit, but not require” the factfinder to infer that the missing video footage would have been favorable to the Rileys and unfavorable to Marriott.

The court rejected the plaintiffs request for summary judgment as to both Marriott’s duty of care as the facts precluded summary resolution of the issue and also rejected summary judgment resulting from the spoliation of evidence finding the imposition of an adverse inference sanction to be the appropriate remedy. However, the court granted summary judgment as to the issue that the fall caused Linda Rileys’ injuries and the nature and severity of those injuries.

Riley v. Marriott Int’l, 2014 WL 4794657 (W.D. N.Y. Sept. 25, 2014)

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