Remedies When Evidence is Destroyed

Yesterday I took the deposition of the Defendant truck driver in a crash that occurred on North Point Road near its intersection with Quail Avenue in Baltimore, Maryland. My client suffered permanent injuries to her left hand (she is left-hand dominant) in the accident.

The Case

This is a classic right turn tractor-trailer truck wreck case. In order to make a right turn in the tractor-trailer, it was necessary for the Defendant truck driver to use two lanes of traffic. I think it is also incumbent upon the Defendant to make sure no one is coming when he makes that right turn, although this requires waiting for a moment while checking his rear view mirrors. In this case, the truck driver made a quick right hand turn into my client, who was apparently in one of his blind spots.

Now, onto the subject of this blog. During his deposition, the truck driver told me that he keeps a log of the driving he does in his tractor trailer. Motor Carrier Safety Regulations regulate the permitted hours a truck driver can be on the road and require the driver to keep a log of his or her trips. Obviously, reviewing this log is helpful in establishing liability, primarily to determine whether the truck driver was in a hurry or the likelihood that fatigue was a factor in the crash. When I asked the question, he said that the log had been destroyed.

In this case, when the trucking company destroyed the log, they knew of the potential litigation. But they destroyed the log anyway. Why? Who knows? It could have been an innocent mistake, or they could have been hiding something. We will never know. What happens at trial in Maryland in this situation?

The Law

Naturally, as lawyers, we use a Latin expression to address this problem: omnia praesumuntur contra spoliatem, which means “all things are presumed against the spoliator.” Maryland has adopted this maxim under the assumption that people do not destroy evidence that would be helpful to their case. Accordingly, under Maryland law, when evidence is destroyed by a party who knows, or should know, of the evidence’s relevance to a potential lawsuit, the aggrieved party’s attorney will ask the judge for a jury instruction that the destruction or alteration of evidence by a party gives rise to inferences or presumptions unfavorable to the spoliator. See Anderson v. Litzenberg, 115 Md. App. 549, 561-562 (1997).

How It Plays Out

In such a serious case I do not think they will contest liability because they will lose credibility on their damages arguments if they do. But, if defendant does not concede liability, I think their failure to keep this log will likely inflame the jury and lead to a higher damage award.

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  • Tony

    From your description of the facts, liability doesn’t sound like much of a stretch. I’d think the relative position of the vehicles on impact should be sufficient without anything more. Unless defendant is arguing that he had his blinker on in sufficient time, and that Plaintiff ignored the signal and tried to squeeze through before defendant could begin his turn. Even still, I think it’s defendant’s obligation to yield in these circumstances.

    You raise a more interesting question about spoilation. Assuming that spoilation applies here, and that Plaintiff is entitled to an instruction on inferences, what would be a reasonable inference here? At first blush, it seems a bit much to me that the destruction of a driver’s log should support an inference that defendant driver was negligent. For example, whether the driver fell asleep at the wheel doesn’t appear to be an issue in your case. I haven’t read the cases so I don’t know how the courts handle spoilation in negligence cases.

  • Ron Miller

    Tony, I think the answer is that the inference that can be drawn is that the truck driver’s logs would show that he had been on the road for a very long time or something consistent with my theory that had he not been in a rush and/or tired, he would have checked his mirrors and waited for traffic to pass. It certainly would not lead to an inference of negligence (although I wish it would).

  • Kevin

    I have represented a few plaintiff in a few of these right turn cases in district court. I have never lost. The truck driver can avoid liability but simply waiting for traffic to pass.

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