Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Spoliation of evidence


Spoliation of evidence
Burke v Queen of Heaven R.C. Elementary Sch., 2017 NY Slip Op 04593, Appellate Division, Fourth Department

Kelly Burke commenced this action seeking damages for injuries that she sustained when she slipped and fell on stairs at a facility owned and operated by Queen of Heaven R.C. Elementary School [Defendant] and sought partial summary judgment as to liability against Defendant on the ground Defendant had destroyed and replaced the stairs after Burke had notified Defendants of her intent to have her expert inspect the stairs, contending that such destruction and replacement of the stairs in question constituted "spoliation of evidence".

With respect to "spoilage", the Appellate Division noted that "Where the evidence is determined to have been intentionally or wil[l]fully destroyed, the relevancy of the destroyed [evidence] is presumed." In contrast, if the evidence is determined to have been negligently destroyed, the party seeking spoliation sanctions must establish that the destroyed [evidence was] relevant to the party's claim or defense."

In order to obtain sanctions for spoliation of evidence, the plaintiff had the burden of showing that [1] the party having control over the evidence possessed an obligation to preserve it at the time of its destruction, [2] the evidence was destroyed with a culpable state of mind, and [3] the destroyed evidence was relevant to the party's claim or defense such that the trier of fact could find that the evidence would support that claim or defense.

Defendant conceded that the original condition of the stairway was relevant.

Noting that Defendant had an obligation to preserve the condition of the stairs existed because litigation had begun at the time the stairs were replaced, the Appellate Division agreed with Burke that she met her burden of establishing that Defendant destroyed the stairs with a culpable state of mind.

As Supreme Court had "properly concluded" that Defendant's culpable state of mind was evidenced by its destruction of the stairs during the parties' ongoing debate about whether Burke had to disclose the name of her expert to Defendant before Defendant would agree to the inspection, the Appellate Division said it agreed with Burke that the  imposition of a sanction against Defendant for spoliation of evidence was warranted here.

As to granting Burke partial summary judgment on liability based on Defendant's destruction of the stairway, the Appellate Division, citing Sarach v M & T Bank Corp., 140 AD3d 1721, explained that  in deciding to impose sanctions, and what particular sanction to impose, courts look to the extent that the spoliation of evidence may prejudice a party, and whether a particular sanction is necessary as a matter of elementary fairness.

Observing that "It is well established that a less drastic sanction than dismissal of the responsible party's pleading may be imposed where [, as here,] the loss does not deprive the nonresponsible party of the means of establishing his or her claim or defense ... the record does not demonstrate that [Burke] has been left 'prejudicially bereft' of the means of prosecuting her action." Accordingly, the Appellate Division ruled that "given that [Burke] has in her possession, among other evidence of the condition of the stairs, photographs of the stairs taken after the commencement of this action, "an appropriate sanction is that an adverse inference charge be given at trial with respect to any now unavailable evidence of the condition of the stairs."

In contrast, in some instances the destruction of records will not be deemed to be subject to sanctions for "spoilage."

In Matter of Klikocki (NY Department of Corrections, Mount McGregor), 216 AD2d 808, the Appellate Division decided that evidence Klikocki claimed would be helpful in his defense in a disciplinary action that the employer had destroyed had not been destroyed in an effort to conceal something but rather occurred in accordance with the normal procedure concerning the retention or destruction of certain records after they had been retained for a specified period of time.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

Handbooks focusing on State and Municipal Public Personnel Law continue to be available for purchase via the links provided below:

The Discipline Book at http://thedisciplinebook.blogspot.com/

Challenging Adverse Personnel Decisions at http://nypplarchives.blogspot.com

The Disability Benefits E-book: at http://section207.blogspot.com/

Layoff, Preferred Lists at http://nylayoff.blogspot.com/

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