Spoliation: An Evidentiary Rule and a Commitment to Truth

Trials are about resolving disputes and uncovering the truth. While the law of evidence does not sound like the most exciting part of court life, the rules of evidence allow the system to function. Understanding these rules, including the concept of spoliation, is crucial to our work as a Sacramento injury law firm, a truth made evident by a recent ruling in a case involving the death of a young child.

Federal Court Cites Evidentiary Principles in Finding Park Service Negligent in Child’s Death
gavel2.jpg As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, a federal judge issued a ruling on Tuesday that penalizes government officials for destroying evidence and finds the National Park Service negligent in the death of a boy from Red Bluff. In July 2009, the Botell family was visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park and paused for a photo with 9 year-old Tommy and 13 year-old Katrina seated on a concrete trailside wall. The wall gave way beneath the siblings, crushing Tommy’s skull and leaving Katrina with a fractured jaw and head injuries. Tommy died as a result of the injuries.

The Botell family brought suit against the government. Although they uncovered documents and witnesses who supported their claim that the Park Service knew the wall was dangerous, the family’s lawyers could not examine the remains of the wall because it had already been destroyed pursuant to the park superintendent’s orders. U. S. Magistrate Gregory Hollows found that Park Service policy required the wall be preserved and that staff had also willfully destroyed documents about the wall’s condition. This week, U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley upheld these findings. In doing so, the Sacramento-based Judge also found the government had forfeited the right to deny that it was negligent in Tyler’s death.

While this is a major ruling, it does not resolve the Butell’s case. A future hearing will examine the government’s claim that the Park Service is immune from suit.

An Overview of Spoliation & Its Role in Protecting the Truth
Spoliation is the legal term for the intentional destruction or alteration of evidence that makes the evidence unusable of otherwise invalid. At one time, California had a specific legal claim for spoliation but that has been eliminated in favor of an evidentiary rule. State and federal courts operate under distinct but often similar evidentiary rules. These principles are spelled out in the Federal Rules of Evidence, the California Evidence Code, and in the Rules of Civil Procedure for the state and federal courts. Both court systems provide sanctions for the failure of a party to comply with discovery obligations. The severity of the sanction varies. In some cases, the court will apply a “spoliation inference” and assume that the evidence was unfavorable to the destroying party. This concept can also be found in the California Civil Jury Instructions, which provide: “You may consider whether one party intentionally concealed or destroyed evidence. If you decide that a party did so, you may decide that the evidence would have been unfavorable to that party.” California’s Supreme Court allows trial courts to vary this instruction to fit the circumstances of the case, making the sanction fit the conduct and imposing less severe sanctions where warranted.

The rules of evidence can be complex and an understanding of these principles is one of the reasons victims should always hire an experienced Northern California personal injury attorney when resolving a claim. While the spoliation rules can be harsh, they recognize that justice requires accurate, unaltered evidence. This is why one of the first steps we often take when instituting a personal injury or wrongful death action is sending a letter to the other side directing them to preserve all evidence relating to the case. This letter helps ensure that the spoliation inference will operate if the opposing party intentionally destroys evidence. It also helps establish the fact that our team is committed to seeking justice for our client and will use the substantive and procedural laws to ensure our clients get the monetary damages they deserve.

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(Photo by Brian Turner)