Discovery, Evidence, Destruction/Spoliation of Evidence
Often times the most taxing and time-consuming part of litigation is discovery. Discovery is the fact-finding process of a lawsuit. The most common discovery tools are interrogatories, requests for production, requests for admissions, and subpoenas for third-party document production/testimony. Cases usually sink and swim on the facts. Without facts and proof, a plaintiff cannot win at trial. It is not unheard of, therefore, that Defendants will conceal or destroy facts/evidence to throw a wrench in a plaintiff’s claim. This is called spoliation of evidence and is extremely disfavored in the law because it essentially the suppression of truth.
“Spoliation is the intentional act of destruction or significant alteration of evidence.” State ex rel. Zobel v. Burrell, 167 S.W.3d 688, 691 (Mo. 2005). What is the consequence if a party is caught in the act of spoliation of evidence? “A party who intentionally destroys or significantly alters evidence is subject to an adverse evidentiary inference under the spoliation of evidence doctrine.” Id. To be considered spoliation, the destructive act must be intentional, not negligent. Schneider v. G. Guilliams, Inc., 976 S.W.2d 522, 527 (Mo. Ct. App. 1998). The spoliator must destroy or alter the evidence under circumstances indicating fraud, deceit, or bad faith. Id. [emphasis added]
Functionally, the spoliation doctrine and the adverse inference penalize spoliators by holding them to “admit that the destroyed evidence would have been unfavorable to their position.” Id. This adverse inference, though, does not prove the case. There still needs to be further evidence to support a plaintiff’s claim.
An example may be helpful. In Dagraffenreid v. H.L. Hannah Trucking Co., 80 S.W.ed 866, 874 (Mo. Ct. App. 2002), a driver who was injured on the job sought telephone logs from his employer in a workers’ compensation case. The employer’s destruction of the logs triggered the spoliation doctrine and the court found that the employer’s actions was a “substantial factor” in the driver’s injury.
Litigation is extremely time consuming and fact intensive. It is extraordinarily important to have an attorney who is familiar with the discovery tools, the importance of evaluating potential evidence, and the facts and legal elements necessary to prosecute/defend a given case. Contact with questions.