Silvestri v. GMC

271 F.3d 583 (4th Cir. 2001)



Spoliation refers to the destruction or material alteration of evidence or to the failure to preserve property for another's use as evidence in pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation. The right to impose sanctions for spoliation arises from a court's inherent power to control the judicial process and litigation, but the power is limited to that necessary to redress conduct which abuses the judicial process. Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(b)(2) (authorizing sanctions for violations of discovery orders).


An intoxicated driver while driving at an excessive rate of speed was injured while driving his landlady's automobile. He filed a products liability action against the automobile's manufacturer, alleging that the airbag in the vehicle did not deploy as warranted. The district court concluded that driver had breached his duty either to preserve the vehicle or to notify driver about its availability and dismissed his claim. Thus, the manufacturer was denied the opportunity to accurately reconstruct the accident at issue. The driver appealed.


Did the district court abuse its discretion when it dismissed the driver's claim?




The Court of appeals agreed that driver's failure to discharge this duty caused the manufacturer to be "highly prejudiced," by denying it access to the only evidence from which it could adequately develop its defenses. First, the defendant could not develop a "crush" model to determine if the airbag properly failed to deploy. Second, because of the spoliation, the auto manufacturer could not resolve the critical question of how plaintiff injured his head. Finally, the district court did not abuse its discretion ordering dismissal as a discovery sanction, where the plaintiff, his attorneys and experts anticipated filing suit against the auto manufacturer, yet failed to take steps to insure against spoliation of the evidence.

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