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Brookshire Bros., Ltd. v. Aldridge

Supreme Court of Texas

September 12, 2012, Argued; July 3, 2014, Opinion Delivered

NO. 10-0846

Opinion

 [*13]  A fundamental tenet of our legal system is that each and every trial is decided on the merits of the lawsuit being tried. After all, reaching the correct  [**2] verdict is the goal of a fair and impartial judiciary. However, when the spoliation of evidence is at issue, this goal is hampered in conflicting ways. First, as is the case when evidence is lost or destroyed for any reason, spoliation can deprive the factfinder of relevant evidence, which can in turn negatively impact the fairness of the trial. Trial courts therefore must have wide discretion in remedying such conduct and in imposing sanctions to deter it. However, 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. The problem is magnified when evidence regarding the spoliating conduct is presented to a jury. Like the spoliating conduct itself, this shift can unfairly skew a jury verdict, resulting in a  [*14]  judgment that is based not on the facts of the case, but on the conduct of the parties during or in anticipation of litigation.

Modern technology has added another layer of complexity to these competing concerns. Due to the exponential increase in the volume of electronic  [**3] data being generated and stored, maintaining the balance between the significant interest in preserving relevant evidence and the burdens associated with doing so has become increasingly difficult.

Today we enunciate with greater clarity the standards governing whether an act of spoliation has occurred and the parameters of a trial court's discretion to impose a remedy upon a finding of spoliation, including submission of a spoliation instruction to the jury. We first hold 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,  [**4] 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.

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438 S.W.3d 9 *; 2014 Tex. LEXIS 562 **; 57 Tex. Sup. J. 947; 2014 WL 2994435

BROOKSHIRE BROTHERS, LTD., PETITIONER, v. JERRY ALDRIDGE, RESPONDENT

Subsequent History: Motion granted by Brookshire Bros. v. Aldridge, 2014 Tex. LEXIS 613 (Tex., July 18, 2014)

Prior History:  [**1] ON PETITION FOR REVIEW FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TWELFTH DISTRICT OF TEXAS.

Brookshire Bro, Ltd. v. Aldridge, 2010 Tex. App. LEXIS 6065 (Tex. App. Tyler, July 30, 2010)

CORE TERMS

spoliation, trial court, footage, video, destruction, relevant evidence, courts, nonspoliating, destroyed, preserved, remedies, destroy evidence, retention, minutes, circumstances, floor, instruction of a jury, court of appeals, presume, electronic, breached, merits, sanctions, deprived, willful, appropriate remedy, intentionally, discoverable, culpability, blindness

Civil Procedure, Judicial Officers, Judges, Discretionary Powers, Evidence, Relevance, Preservation of Relevant Evidence, Spoliation, Sanctions, Misconduct & Unethical Behavior, General Overview, Trials, Jury Trials, Province of Court & Jury, Jury Instructions, Inferences & Presumptions, Presumptions, Torts, Activities & Conditions, Slip & Fall Injuries, Elements, General Premises Liability, Dangerous Conditions, Known Dangers, Discovery, Electronic Discovery, Presumptions, Rebuttal of Presumptions, Appeals, Standards of Review, Abuse of Discretion, Burdens of Proof, Allocation, Exclusion of Relevant Evidence, Confusion, Prejudice & Waste of Time, Relevant Evidence, Types of Evidence, Documentary Evidence, Best Evidence Rule, Reversible Errors, Substantial Evidence, Sufficiency of Evidence