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Silvestri v. GMC - 271 F.3d 583 (4th Cir. 2001)

Rule:

To justify the harsh sanction of dismissal, the district court must consider both the spoliator's conduct and the prejudice caused and be able to conclude either (1) that the spoliator's conduct was so egregious as to amount to a forfeiture of his claim, or (2) that the effect of the spoliator's conduct was so prejudicial that it substantially denied the defendant the ability to defend the claim.

Facts:

Plaintiff, while intoxicated, drove his landlady's car at an excessive rate of speed and was injured in a crash. Plaintiff filed a products liability action against defendant automobile manufacturer, alleging that the airbag in the car did not deploy as warranted. The district court concluded that plaintiff had breached his duty either to preserve the car or to notify defendant about its availability and that such breach caused defendant to be "highly prejudiced." The district court dismissed plaintiff’s claim. The appellate court affirmed the district court’s judgment.

Issue:

Did the district court abuse its discretion by ordering dismissal as a discovery sanction, where plaintiff, his attorneys and experts anticipated filing suit against defendant automobile manufacturer, yet failed to take steps to insure against spoliation of the evidence?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

Plaintiff's spoliation caused defendant automobile manufacturer to be "highly prejudiced," by denying it access to the only evidence from which it could adequately develop its defenses. First, defendant could not develop a "crush" model to determine if the airbag properly failed to deploy. Second, because of the spoliation, the defendant could not resolve the critical question of how plaintiff injured his head.

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