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Federal Court Clarifies “Spoliation” Doctrine in Workplace Injury Case

Posted in Firm News

Earlier this month, a federal court of appeals issued a written opinion in a workplace injury case involving claims made by an employee that the allegedly negligent party intentionally destroyed or lost evidence necessary to his case. In the case, Schaefer v. Universal Scaffolding, the court held that a party claiming an opposing party intentionally lost or destroyed evidence must show that they would have had a “reasonable probability” of success if the evidence had been preserved.

If a party can make this showing, the spoliating party (the party that lost or destroyed the evidence) may face a variety of sanctions, including an adverse inference instruction to the jury that the evidence, had it been presented, should be assumed to disfavor the spoliating party. Sanctions may also include judgment being entered against the spoliating party.

The Facts of the Case

Schaefer worked in the construction industry. As a part of his job, he would assemble scaffolding. One day, a piece of scaffolding manufactured by the defendant came loose and struck him on the head. He sustained serious injuries and filed a product liability lawsuit in addition to a claim for Workers’ Compensation.

During the discovery phase of the trial, it became evident that the piece of scaffolding that caused Schaefer’s injuries was missing. Schaefer claimed that the spoliation of critical evidence should result in a judgment being entered in his favor. To support his claim, he presented evidence that many other pieces of scaffolding in the same set were defective. The trial court denied Schaefer’s motion and granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, holding that Schaefer could not prove that he would have won the case if the evidence had been preserved. Schaefer appealed.

On appeal, the court reversed the lower court’s holding regarding negligent spoliation. The court first held that, while there is not a duty to preserve every piece of evidence, evidence that is likely to be used in a trial should be preserved. Then, the court went on to discuss whether the spoliation had an impact on Schaefer’s case. The court applied a two-prong test. First, did the missing evidence result in Schaefer’s losing his lawsuit? Second, if the evidence were available, would Schaefer have a “reasonable probability” of winning his claim? The court determined both prongs may have been met and sent the case back to the lower court to apply the proper analysis. Thus, Schaefer will have an opportunity to prove his spoliation claim.

Have You Been Involved in a New Mexico Personal Injury Accident?

If you or a loved one has recently been involved in any kind of New Mexico personal injury accident, you may be entitled to monetary compensation from the responsible party. It is important to keep in mind how critical it is to obtain all favorable relevant evidence in the discovery phase. If evidence that should be handed over is not available, and it was in the control of the opposing party, a spoliation claim may be appropriate. Contact the skilled personal injury attorneys at the Fine Law Firm at 505-889-FINE to discuss your case today free of charge. In fact, you will not be billed unless we can help you recover the compensation you deserve.

More Blog Posts:

State Court Applies “Discovery Rule” to Reverse Dismissal of Wrongful Death Claim, New Mexico Personal Injury Lawyer Blog, October 12, 2016.

Woman Awarded $1.2 Million Verdict in Grocery Cart Injury Case, New Mexico Personal Injury Lawyer Blog, October 18, 2016.