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Stevenson v. Union Pac. R.R. - 354 F.3d 739 (8th Cir. 2004)

Rule:

An adverse inference instruction is appropriate only where the spoliation or destruction of evidence is intentional and indicates a fraud or desire to suppress the truth. 

Facts:

On Nov. 6, 1998, a train owned and operated by defendant Union Pacific Railroad Company ("Railroad") struck the vehicle owned by plaintiffs Frank and Mary E. Stevenson. The collision occurred as the crossed the tracks on a highway. Mrs. Stevenson died as a result of the collision, and Mr. Stevenson suffered severe injuries and had no memory of the accident. Mr. Stevenson and plaintiff , Rebecca Harshberger, the administratrix of Mrs. Stevenson's estate, filed a negligence action against the Railroad in federal district court. The district court granted partial summary judgment, dismissing several negligence claims, including allegations concerning the speed of the train. Plaintiffs then filed a motion for sanctions on the ground that the Railroad destroyed evidence, namely, a voice tape of conversations between the train crew and dispatch at the time of the accident and track maintenance records from before the accident. The Railroad argued that sanctions were not justified because it destroyed the documents in good faith pursuant to its routine document retention policies. The district court granted the motion and imposed sanctions of an adverse inference instruction regarding the destroyed evidence and an award of costs and attorneys' fees incurred as a result of the spoliation of evidence. After trial, the jury returned a general verdict in favor of plaintiffs and judgment was entered on the verdict. The Railroad appealed, asserting that: (1) it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on plaintiffs' claim regarding the sounding of the train's horn at the crossing; (2) the district court abused its discretion in giving the adverse inference instruction, and; (3) the district court abused its discretion by ordering attorneys' fees as sanctions.

Issue:

Did the district court abuse its discretion in giving an adverse inference jury instruction and awarding attorneys' fees to plaintiffs?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The appellate court affirmed in part and reversed in part the district's judgment and remanded the case for a new trial. The court ruled, inter alia, that: (1) based on conflicting evidence and testimony from lay and expert witnesses, reasonable minds could differ on the issue of whether the train crew properly sounded the train's horn at or near the crossing, and thus the district court did not err in denying the Railroad judgment as a matter of law on that issue; (2) the district court did not abuse its discretion by sanctioning the Railroad's pre-litigation destruction of the voice tape and the destruction of track maintenance records after litigation had commenced as there was sufficient evidence that the destruction was done in bad faith, and thus the district court did not abuse its discretion in giving the adverse inference instruction as a sanction; (3) although the district court did not abuse its discretion by giving the adverse inference instruction, it did abuse its discretion by not permitting the Railroad to offer a reasonable rebuttal to the inference, and; (4) any award of attorneys' fees as a sanction for prelitigation destruction of track maintenance records was unwarranted if not supported by a bad faith finding, thus because part of the existing award could have been based upon prelitigation conduct that did not amount to bad faith, the award was vacated and the matter was remanded for recalculation under the bad faith standard.

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