A recent appeal of a decision from Judge Gerald Bruce Lee of the Eastern District of Virginia is another cautionary example that counsel defending corporate clients in civil litigation must be ever-vigilant against plaintiff’s claims of evidence spoliation. In today’s modern commercial litigation, careful lawyers are (rightly) concerned about spoliation claims of Electronically Stored Information (“ESI”). Civil practitioners in the Eastern District of Virginia are seeing more and more of such claims from parties attempting to gain a decisive advantage in litigation. The stakes are obviously high: few corporate clients can hope to overcome the sanction of a judge’s jury instruction that the corporation has acted improperly to destroy relevant evidence. Considering how easy it is to demonize corporate parties in a jury trial, such an obstacle usually leads to a generous settlement offer.
In Zellers v. NexTech Northeast, LLC, Case No. 1:11-cv-00967 (GBL/TRJ), Ms. Zellers sued her former employer, Rite Aid, after she was allegedly exposed to refrigerant coolant that leaked from a gas line in a freezer. After the leak was discovered, a technician plugged the leak, which presumably contained the remaining refrigerant within the gas line. Ms. Zellers then filed suit against the employer. Several weeks later, another technician serviced the gas line after another reported leak and performed a triple evacuation of the freezer system,which removed all traces of the refrigerant in the system.
This technician was never aware of the newly-filed litigation, and instead, was simply following his instructions to service the freezer. Later in the litigation, an issue developed that turned on the chemical composition of the refrigerant allegedly inhaled by the plaintiff. But due to the evacuation of the gas lines, there was no refrigerant to test.
The plaintiff filed a motion seeking spoliation sanctions against the defendant which included an adverse inference instruction to be delivered to the jury by the trial judge. The proposed instruction stated that the defendant had improperly released the refrigerant, and the jury was free to presume that the refrigerant was harmful to the defendant’s case. As a practical matter, such adverse inference instructions are difficult for defense counsel to overcome.
Ultimately in this case, Judge Lee denied the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions as moot after he excluded the plaintiff’s proffered experts on Daubert grounds and granted summary judgment to the defendant. But this case is an example and warning to corporate defense counsel. The routine operations of a company can lead to spoliation claims under expected circumstances. Thus, defense counsel must be vigilant to safeguard evidence that is connected to claims raised in any lawsuit.
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