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Spoliation: Destruction of Evidence

Jul 12, 2014

In Texas, what are the standards governing whether spoliation (destruction of evidence) has occurred and a trial court’s discretion to impose a remedy for spoliation?

In Texas, spoliation is an evidentiary concept rather than a separate cause of action.  Trevino v. Ortega, 969 S.W.2d 950, 952 (Tex. 1998).

The Texas Supreme Court recently clarified the law on this issue.  In Brookshire Bros., Ltd. v. Aldridge, 2014 Tex. LEXIS 562, *2-4 (Tex. July 3, 2014), the Court held “that a spoliation analysis involves a two-step judicial process: (1) the trial court must determine, as a question of law, whether a party spoliated evidence, and (2) if spoliation occurred, the court must assess an appropriate remedy. To conclude that a party spoliated evidence, the court must find that (1) the spoliating party had a duty to reasonably preserve evidence, and (2) the party intentionally or negligently breached that duty by failing to do so. Spoliation findings--and their related sanctions--are to be determined by the trial judge, outside the presence of the jury, in order to avoid unfairly prejudicing the jury by the presentation of evidence that is unrelated to the facts underlying the lawsuit. Accordingly,  evidence bearing directly upon whether a party has spoliated evidence is not to be presented to the jury except insofar as it relates to the substance of the lawsuit. Upon a finding of spoliation, the trial court has broad discretion to impose a remedy that, as with any discovery sanction, must be proportionate; that is, it must relate directly to the conduct giving rise to the sanction and may not be excessive. Key considerations in imposing a remedy are the level of culpability of the spoliating party and the degree of prejudice, if any, suffered by the nonspoliating party.”

Additionally, “While the spectrum of remedies that may be imposed range from an award of attorney's fees to the dismissal of the lawsuit, 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. This intent requirement is congruent with the presumption underlying a spoliation instruction--that the evidence would have hurt the wrongdoer. 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.”  Brookshire Bros., Ltd. v. Aldridge, 2014 Tex. LEXIS 562, *4-5 (Tex. July 3, 2014).

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