Law School Case Brief
Testa v. Wal-Mart Stores - 144 F.3d 173 (1st Cir. 1998)
A trier of fact may (but need not) infer from a party's obliteration of a document relevant to a litigated issue that the contents of the document are unfavorable to that party. A suitable foundation must exist before such an inference can materialize. Thus, the sponsor of the inference must proffer evidence sufficient to permit the trier to find that the target knew of (a) the claim (that is, the litigation or the potential for litigation) and (b) the document's potential relevance to that claim. Moreover, even if these foundational requirements are met, the trier nonetheless may refuse to draw the negative inference. In other words, the inference is permissive and not mandatory.
Defendant Wal-Mart Stores was sued in federal district court by plaintiff Louis Testa, a truck driver, for personal injuries he sustained after he slipped on an icy ramp while making a delivery to one of Wal-Mart's stores. During the case, the jury queried the trial court, and the trial court gave a supplemental instruction on negligence and proximate cause. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Testa for damages and money judgment. Wal-Mart sought review, and the appellate court affirmed the money judgment over Wal-Mart's argument that the district court erred by not including an instruction on contributory negligence when it gave the jury the supplemental charge.
Did the trial court err in its supplemental instruction to the jury because it failed to give instructions on contributory negligence?
The appellate court affirmed the trial court's judgment in favor of the Testa. The court rejected Wal-Mart's argument that the trial court erred by not giving a repetitive instruction on comparative negligence as part of its supplemental instruction on negligence and proximate cause that was given in response to a jury query. The trial court was required only to address those matters fairly encompassed within the jury's question. The trial court had discretion to add to the answer. The court also found that there was no error in the trial court's instruction that allowed the jury to draw a negative inference from the destruction of a purchase order and telephone records of Wal-Mart. A jury could infer from a party's destruction of a document that was relevant to a litigated issue that the document was unfavorable to that party, but such an inference was not mandatory.
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