In the recent case of Brookshire Brothers v. Aldridge, No. 10-0846, ___ S.W.3rd ___ (2014), the Supreme Court of Texas set fourth the standards for how a trial court handles spoliation claims.
First, the Court reiterates the importance of a fair and impartial trial and notes the issues that arise when spoliation of evidence prevents a fair trial.
The opinion sets forth the parameters within which a trial court has discretion in deciding and remedying spoliation by a party to the lawsuit.
The Texas Supreme Court held that spoliation requires a two-step judicial analysis:
1. The trial court must determine, as a matter of law, whether spoliation of evidence has occurred: and
2. If spoliation has occurred, the trial court must assess an appropriate remedy.
In order to establish that a party spoliated evidence, the trial court must find that:
1. The spoliating party had a duty to reasonably preserve evidence, and
2. Intentional or negligent failure to preserve evidence by that party.
The Court goes on to specify that analysis of whether spoliation of evidence occurred and the appropriate sanctions should take place outside the presence of the jury, to avoid unfair prejudice, except insofar as it relates to the substance of the underlying lawsuit.
The Court restates that a trial court has broad discretion to impose a remedy and that the remedy must be proportionate; directly relating to the conduct giving rise to the sanction and that the sanction may not be excessive.
Two key considerations by the trial court in imposing a sanction are the level of culpability of the spoliating party and the degree of prejudice suffered by the party seeking the evidence.
The Supreme Court of Texas then explains that the remedies available to a trial court can be quite broad, from an award of attorney’s fees to the dismissal of the lawsuit.
Going on to state that a spoliation instruction is a harsh remedy, warranted only when the trial court finds that the party that failed to preserve the evidence, acted with specific intent of concealing discoverable evidence and that a less severe remedy would be insufficient to address the prejudice caused by the destruction of evidence.
The latest holding by the Court shows that a spoliation instruction is a harsh remedy but, if the evidence was intentionally destroyed in order to prevent harm to the case, a spoliation instruction may be appropriate.
The Court clarified that “a failure to preserve evidence with a negligent mental state may only underlie a spoliation instruction in the rare situation in which a nonspoliating party has been irreparably deprived of any meaningful ability to present a claim or defense”.
The long awaited opinion provides a clear and consistent framework for trial courts to analyze and deal with destruction of evidence claims.