What is Spoliation of Evidence? And Why Do You Care?
Spoliation of evidence is a seemingly obscure subject that can greatly impact businesses and people alike. The term pertains to the legal impact of destroying evidence that is relevant to a lawsuit.
Colorado Courts have established that a person has a duty to maintain and preserve evidence if the evidence is relevant to “pending, imminent, or reasonably foreseeable litigation.” Castillo v. Chief Alternative, LLC, 140 P.3d 234, 236 (Colo. App. 2006). In other words, if you are involved in an incident or dispute and it appears that a lawsuit will stem from it, you have a duty to preserve all evidence associated with the incident. This includes a duty to preserve videos, documents, photographs, tangible property, etc.
While this duty to preserve evidence is relatively simple for individuals, the process can be far more complicated for businesses. Many businesses have company procedures for maintaining and destroying documentation or other company data over certain time periods. These protocols for destruction of company property can give rise to spoliation issues if the business doesn’t modify the protocol when it receives notice of reasonably foreseeable litigation. As an example, Jorgensen, Brownell & Pepin was recently successful in imposing discovery sanctions upon a business for failing to preserve video evidence. In that lawsuit, the business received notice that its intoxicated patron was involved in a serious car accident after leaving the establishment. The Court determined that the business should have modified its protocol for monthly destruction of video footage after it received notice that a lawsuit could result from the incident.
If a Court determines that a party destroyed relevant evidence even though future litigation was reasonably foreseeable, the penalties are potentially serious. These penalties can include an award of attorneys’ fees associated with discovery motions on the issue, and more importantly, Courts can employ an adverse inference jury instruction at trial. An adverse inference instruction means that the jury would be informed by the Court that the destroyed evidence may have been unfavorable to the party that destroyed the evidence. Litigants that successfully obtain this jury instruction can use it to pursue favorable jury verdicts and favorable settlements.
In short, spoliation of evidence is a serious and potentially complicated issue. If you are involved in a dispute where some of the evidence has gone missing, you should seek counsel from the attorneys at Jorgensen, Brownell & Pepin as soon as possible.