When evidence is lost in litigation, intentionally or otherwise, that loss – or spoliation – oftentimes becomes the subject of more attention than the underlying issues involved in the parties’ dispute. Indeed, this summer the Texas Supreme Court observed that a “fundamental tenet of our legal system is that each and every trial is decided on the merits of the lawsuit being tried” and that “the imposition of a severe spoliation sanction, such as a spoliation jury instruction, can shift the focus of the case from the merits of the lawsuit to the improper conduct that was allegedly committed by one of the parties during the course of the litigation process.”
Attempting to address this situation, in Brookshire Brothers v. Aldridge, the Texas Supreme Court clarified when spoliation occurs and the scope of a trial court’s discretion to impose sanctions as a remedy. First, spoliation occurs when a party has a duty to reasonably preserve evidence but (intentionally or negligently) fails to do so. Second, the trial court has broad discretion to impose a proportionate remedy for that spoliation; the key considerations for which are the level of the spoliating party’s culpability and the degree of prejudice suffered from the spoliation.
Importantly, the Texas Supreme Court noted that “the harsh remedy of a spoliation instruction is warranted only when the trial court finds that the spoliating party acted with the specific intent of concealing discoverable evidence, and that a less severe remedy would be insufficient to reduce the prejudice caused by the spoliation.”
“Merits determinations are significantly affected by both spoliation instructions and the conduct that gives rise to them.” As such, the Texas Supreme Court attempted to craft a mechanism by which trial courts can properly sanction spoliation without unduly impacting resolution of companies’ underlying disputes.
Brookshire Bros., Ltd. v. Aldridge, 2014 Tex. Lexis 562 (Tex. July 3, 2014)