Defendant was not sanctioned for failing to preserve broken bicycle parts, but only because the plaintiff could not prove the defendant’s acts were willful and contumacious.Posted: November 20, 2017
Preservation of evidence has become a major issue of lots of litigation. Every business not needs to create a plan for how long to retain documents, email, records, etc., and why those records are destroyed when they are.
State: New York; Supreme Court of New York, Kings County
Plaintiff: Hywel John
Defendant: CC Cyclery and CO LLC and William Svenstrup
Plaintiff Claims: Motion to strike defenses of the defendant for failing to preserve evidence
Defendant Defenses: failure to preserve the evidence was not willful
Holding: for the Defendant
When you are placed on notice of possible litigation, you must preserve all evidence surrounding the facts of the litigation. That includes in this case, broken bicycle parts. Failing to preserve evidence can result in sanctions, including denial of your defenses.
The plaintiff had his bicycle serviced at the defendant’s bicycle shop. While riding his bicycle one day the front wheel of the bike dislodged causing him to fall to the ground.
After the accident, he took his bicycle back to the defendant. While the plaintiff was at the shop, he requested information about the defendant’s insurance policy. The defendant did not provide that information to the plaintiff. The plaintiff later emailed the defendant an ask for the same information and again was not provided it.
The defendant repaired the damages to the bike. After replacing the broken parts, he eventually threw them away.
In his post-accident repair of plaintiff’s bicycle, Mr. Underwood stated that he replaced several of the parts, including a device called a quick release. Mr. Underwood further admitted that upon showing plaintiff which bicycle parts he fixed, he threw away the broken parts including the quick release. Additionally, Mr. Underwood testified that he held onto the defective parts “until the trash came” on the week that plaintiff picked up his bicycle….
Again, the plaintiff asked for information about the shop’s insurance policy. Again, the shop refused to provide that information. The shop also claimed that it never touched the plaintiff’s quick release, so therefore the shop could not be
at fault for the plaintiff’s accident.
The plaintiff then filed this lawsuit. Upon being placed on notice of a potential litigation, the law requires all parties to preserve evidence. Because the broken parts of the bicycle were thrown away, the plaintiff filed a motion asking for sanctions against the defendant for failing to preserve the evidence.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The basis of the plaintiff’s motion was:
Plaintiff contends that defendants’ Answer should be stricken pursuant to CPLR § 3126 because Mr. Underwood disposed of the bicycle
parts without first “advis[ing] plaintiff or anyone else that he intended to throw out or destroy the purportedly defective parts”. Plaintiff asserts that “Mr. Underwood threw out these parts in spite of having preserved and retained exclusive possession and control over these parts at CC Cyclery from November 28, 2014 (DOA) and continuing until sometime after the plaintiff returned to the shop to pick up his bicycle on January 23, 2015”. According to plaintiff, defendants “knew or should have known that the parts removed and replaced from
plaintiff’s bicycle were significant and material evidence in a reasonably foreseeable litigation, based upon plaintiff’s repeated requests for insurance information in order for him to effectuate a claim for the damages he sustained in this accident”
In order for the court to grant any sanctions against the defendant, the plaintiff must prove the acts of the defendant were done in a willful or contumacious manner.
The issue then resolves around the point in time that the defendant should have known that possible litigation was imminent. The plaintiff argued this occurred, and the defendant was placed on notice when he asked for the defendant’s
insurance information. The defendant argued that since the defendant was a lay person, how could he interpret this as being placed on notice.
Additionally, defendants aver that Mr. Underwood–an unrepresented layperson at the time–would not have interpreted plaintiff’s request for insurance as notice that he was required to preserve the replaced bicycle parts
The defense also argued that loss of the broken bicycle parts was more damaging to them because they could not show how the plaintiff failed to keep his bicycle in proper condition and failed to provide for proper maintenance for his bike.
The court denied the plaintiff’s motion for several reasons. First, the plaintiff could not show that the destruction of the evidence, the broken parts was not “willful, contumacious or in bad faith.” Nor at the time of the destruction of the evidence was the defendant on notice of possible litigation.
Moreover, under the common law, “when a party negligently loses or intentionally destroys key evidence, thereby depriving the non-responsible party from being able to prove its claim or defense, the responsible party may be sanctioned by the striking of its pleading”
Additionally, a pleading may be stricken where the evidence lost or destroyed is so central to the case .that it renders the party seeking the evidence “prejudicially bereft of appropriate means to confront a claim with incisive evidence”. Notably, “even if the evidence was destroyed before the spoliator became a party, [the pleading may nonetheless be stricken] provided [the party] was on notice that the evidence might be needed for future litigation
The plaintiff’s motion was denied.
So Now What?
Although not a new area of the law, destruction of evidence has taken on new meaning and value in the digital age. Communications by phone never needed to be kept because there was no way to keep them. Emails can be preserved indefinitely, and this has created tons of litigation setting out the rules for when evidence must be preserved and when it can be destroyed.
When in doubt, unless told to destroy it by your attorney or your insurance company, keep it. Better, give the broken parts back to your customer. 99% of the time the parts will be thrown away by the time the customer gets back home.
However, this is an area you need to check with your attorney about. Create a plan for how long you are going to hold on to documents, preserve emails and other digital information and what to with broken parts.
Sanctions for failing to preserve evidence in many other states do not have such a high bar to protect the defendant. Willful
and contumacious in most other states is far beyond what is required. So, in many other locals, sanctions are easily levied.
By the way Contumacious means stubbornly or willfully disobedient to authority or is a stubborn refusal to obey authority or, particularly in law, the willful contempt of the order or summons of a court. The term is derived from the Latin word contumacia, meaning firmness or stubbornness.[i]
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