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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.

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.

John v. CC Cyclery, 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3213; 2017 NY Slip Op 31810(U)

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

Year: 2017

Summary

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. 

Facts 

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]

 What do you think? Leave a comment.

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John v. CC Cyclery, 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3213; 2017 NY Slip Op 31810(U)

John v. CC Cyclery, 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3213; 2017 NY Slip Op 31810(U)

Hywel John, Plaintiff, -VS- CC Cyclery and CO LLC and William Svenstrup, Defendants. Index No. 501255/15

501255/15

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, KINGS COUNTY

2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3213; 2017 NY Slip Op 31810(U)

August 22, 2017, Decided

NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.

CORE TERMS: bicycle, subject accident, notice, deposition, replaced, shop, repair, contumacious, stricken, willful, pick, material evidence, prima facie case, failed to demonstrate, negligently, discarding, layperson, destroyed, destroy, threw, front wheel, confirmed, repaired, riding, asking, email, bike

JUDGES: [*1] PRESENT: HON. LARRY D. MARTIN, J.S.C.

OPINION BY: LARRY D. MARTIN

OPINION

Upon the foregoing papers, plaintiff Hywel John (“plaintiff”) moves for an order: (1) pursuant to CPLR § 3126, striking the Answer of defendants CC Cyclery and Co LLC and William Svenstrup (collectively, “defendants”) on the grounds of negligent and/or intentional spoliation of material evidence; and (2) extending the time to file a Note of Issue (NOI).

Brief Facts & Procedural History

Plaintiff commenced the instant action to recover compensatory damages for personal injuries he allegedly sustained on. November 28, 2014, when the front wheel of a bicycle (the “subject bicycle”) he was riding dislodged, causing him to be flung from the bicycle onto the ground (the “subject accident”). In the verified bill of particulars, plaintiff alleges, among other things, that defendants “negligently repaired and maintained” (Bill of Particulars, ¶ 13) the subject bicycle.

At his January 11, 2016 deposition, plaintiff testified that he initially went to defendants’ repair shop, CC Cyclery and Co. LLC (“Cyclery”), to have guards placed on the subject bicycle’s wheels and a rack fitted onto the back (Plaintiff’s Affirmation, exhibit E, Hywel Deposition, 26: 24-25; [*2] 27: 13-14; 22-23). Plaintiff returned to Cyclery on the date of the subject accident to pick up his bicycle, and was riding along Avenue A, in Brooklyn, New York, when the subject accident occurred [**2] (id. at 31: 22-25; 32:2-11). Plaintiff testified that immediately after his accident, he returned to Cyclery, informed an individual named Mr. Jeff Underwood (“Mr. Underwood”) of what transpired and left the bicycle in the shop’s possession for further repairs to be performed (id. at 64: 7-12).

Thereafter, plaintiff emailed Mr. Underwood on December 3, 2014 asking for the company’s insurance information, claiming that he was “pretty concerned about [his] healthcare contribution going forward” as well as his “lack of ability to work properly over the next couple of months” due to his injuries (id. at exhibit M). Mr. Underwood responded to plaintiff in an email dated December 9, 2014 stating, among other things, “your front wheel had to be straightened and the tire had to be replaced . . .” and “I also switched out the quick release on the front to a Allen bolt . . .” (id. at exhibit L). Mr. Underwood did not address plaintiff’s request for insurance information in his email. According to plaintiff, he returned [*3] to Cyclery on January 23, 2015 to pick up his bike and, once again, asked Mr. Underwood for the company’s insurance information (id. at 68: 15-17). However, plaintiff claims that Mr. Underwood refused to comply with plaintiff’s request for insurance information (id. at 68: 18-20).

At Mr. Underwood’s deposition on July 26, 2016, he stated that he is the former owner of Cyclery and, among other things, was working as a mechanic for the company at the time of the subject accident (id. at exhibit H, Underwood Deposition, 17: 5-9; 18: 12-14). Mr. Underwood confirmed that he made repairs to plaintiff’s bicycle both before and after the subject accident. Moreover, during his deposition, Mr. Underwood identified a photo of the subject bicycle (previously marked as Defendants’ exhibit A) and confirmed that it accurately depicted the condition of the bike on the date of the accident (id. at 53: 23-25; 54: 2-3; see exhibit K).

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 (id. at 60: 5-22). Mr. Underwood further admitted that upon showing plaintiff which bicycle parts he fixed, he threw away the broken parts including the quick [*4] release (id. at 61: 15-23). Additionally, Mr. Underwood testified that he held onto the defective parts “until the trash came” on the week that plaintiff picked up his bicycle [**3] (id. at 64: 5-9).

According to Mr. Underwood, plaintiff asked him to talk to the shop owner about submitting an insurance claim on plaintiff’s behalf, and Mr. Underwood replied that the company could not do so (id. at 63: 16-19). Mr. Underwood asserted that he never touched the quick release device prior to the subject accident, and, therefore, defendants could not be at fault for plaintiff’s accident (id. at exhibit H, 52: 3-5; 8; 19-21).

Plaintiff thereafter commenced the instant action on February 4, 2015. On March 1, 2016, plaintiff served defendants with a notice to “preserve and retain any and all parts and equipment f[ro]m the plaintiff’s bicycle . . .” (see id. at exhibit F). On May 5, 2016, a compliance conference was held and an order was issued directing, among other things, for plaintiff to “preserve the bicycle at issue for inspection by defendants” (id. at exhibit G).

Discussion

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 [*5] anyone else that he intended to throw out or destroy the purportedly defective parts” (Plaintiff’s Affirmation, ¶ 45). 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” (id.). 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” (id. at ¶ 54).

In response, defendants assert that they did not act in a willful or contumacious manner in discarding the bicycle parts. Rather, defendants contend that plaintiff’s act in asking Mr. Underwood about insurance was “merely a request for insurance information that [plaintiff] could use to obtain additional health care contributions” and did not constitute notice “that the accident would result [*6] in [**4] litigation with claims of negligence on the part of the defendants” (see Defendants’ Affirmation in Opp, ¶ 4). 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 (see Defendants’ Affirmation in Opp, ¶ 4). In any event, defendants argue that striking their Answer is not an appropriate sanction in this instance because the missing bicycle parts do not prejudice or impede plaintiff’s ability to make out his prima facie case (id. at ¶ 5). In fact, defendants assert that the loss of such evidence is more prejudicial to them, “as it will be evidence that they now lack to show that plaintiff failed to keep his bicycle in proper condition and failed to request a proper maintenance from defendants at the time that he [initially] brought the bicycle in to be repaired” (id. at ¶ 6).

Based upon a review of the record submitted by the parties and the relevant law, the Court denies plaintiff’s motion. CPLR § 3126 provides for the striking out of a party’s pleadings when that party “refuses to obey an order for disclosure or wilfully fails [*7] to disclose information which the court finds ought to have been disclosed . . .” (CPLR § 3126 [3]). However, such a drastic remedy is “unwarranted absent a ‘clear showing that the failure to comply with discovery demands was willful, contumacious or in bad faith'” (Foncette v LA Express, 295 AD2d 471, 472, 744 N.Y.S.2d 429 [2d Dept 2002]). 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” (Baglio v St. John’s Queens Hosp., 303 AD2d 341, 342, 755 N.Y.S.2d 427 [2d Dept 2003]). 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” (Foncette, 295 AD2d at 472; see Awon v Harran Transp. Co., Inc., 69 AD3d 889, 890, 895 N.Y.S.2d 135 [2d Dept 2010]). 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” (Baglio, 303 AD2d at 342).

[**5] As an initial matter, the Court notes that a Notice to Preserve Evidence was not served on defendants until more than one year after the subject accident occurred and the instant action was commenced (see MetLife Auto & Home v Joe Basil Chevrolet, Inc., 1 NY3d 478, 484, 807 N.E.2d 865, 775 N.Y.S.2d 754 [2004]) [*8] . Absent such notice, the Court finds that plaintiff’s act in requesting insurance information was insufficient to put a layperson such as Mr. Underwood on notice that litigation was contemplated.

Moreover, the Court finds that plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that Mr. Underwood’s act in discarding the removed bicycle parts was willful and contumacious (see Di Domenico v C & S Aeromatik Supplies, 252 AD2d 41, 52, 682 N.Y.S.2d 452 [2d Dept 1998]). Plaintiff also fails to establish that Mr. Underwood’s actions have completely deprived him of the ability to prove his prima facie case (cf. Baglio, 303 AD2d at 342). As defendants note, plaintiff still has at his disposal the photograph reflecting the defective condition of the bicycle at the time of the accident, as well as Mr. Underwood’s undisputed deposition testimony detailing which portions of the bicycle he fixed and which portions he discarded. Thus, while it cannot be said that plaintiff is not adversely affected by the loss of the defective bicycle parts, the Court finds that plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that he is prejudiced by this loss (see Awon, 69 AD3d at 890; Foncette, 295 AD2d at 472).

Conclusion

Accordingly, that portion of plaintiff’s motion seeking to strike defendants’ Answer is denied. That portion of plaintiff’s motion seeking an order providing for the filing of [*9] the NOI is denied as moot. A review of the court’s record indicates that plaintiff filed the NOI herein on October 14, 2016. The parties are reminded of their September 6, 2017 appearance in JCP.

The foregoing constitutes the decision and order of the Court.

ENTER,

/s/ Larry Martin

HON. LARRY MARTIN

J.S.C.