Not so Fast — The Texas Supreme Court Shows Reluctance to Allow Claims for Spoliation of Evidence
In Wackenhut Corp. v. Gutierrez, 2015 Tex. LEXIS 112, 58 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 289 (Tex. 2015), the Texas Supreme Court reversed the jury verdict against Wackenhut because a spoliation instruction was erroneously given by the trial court.
Wackenhut stemmed from a motor vehicle accident involving Gutierrez and a charter bus that was owned and operated by Wackenhut. The charter bus was equipped with four video cameras that automatically loop over and erase the previously recorded data after seven days. One of the cameras on the bus was in a position to have possibly captured the accident, but Wackenhut did not preserve the recording and the footage was automatically looped over after seven days.
Almost two years after the accident, Gutierrez sued Wackenhut for negligence and sought damages for his injuries sustained in the collision. Before trial, Gutierrez filed a Motion for Spoliation of Evidence, requesting that Wackenhut be sanctioned because it intentionally or negligently destroyed the video recording of the collision. At the end of the trial, the trial court ruled that Wackenhut negligently spoliated evidence and allowed Gutierrez to submit a spoliation instruction in the jury charge. The jury found in Gutierrez’s favor and Wackenhut appealed.
On appeal, the Texas Supreme Court was asked to determine whether or not the trial court’s submission of the spoliation instruction was proper. Affirming its recent opinion in Brookshire Brothers, Ltd. v. Aldridge, 438 S.W. 3d 9 (Tex. 2014), the court identified specific restrictions imposed on the trial court in submitting a spoliation instruction to the jury. According to Brookshire, a trial court may submit a spoliation instruction only if it finds that (1) the spoliating party acted with intent to conceal discoverable evidence, or (2) the spoliating party acted negligently and irreparably deprived the nonspoliating party any meaningful ability to present a claim or defense. Id. at 23-26.
The trial court found that Wackenhut negligently spoliated the video evidence, but the trial court did not determine whether or not Gutierrez was irreparably deprived of any meaningful ability to present a claim or defense. In analyzing this factor, the Texas Supreme Court noted that there was testimony of numerous witnesses, photographs, reports from the police and Wackenhut’s corporate headquarters, and medical records. Therefore, the Texas Supreme Court determined that there was an abundance of additional evidence available to Gutierrez and he was not irreparably deprived of any meaningful ability to present his claim; accordingly, the case was remanded to the trial court for a new trial.