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Supreme Court of Texas Clarifies Standards Governing Spoliation, Limits Imposition of Spoliation Instructions and the Presentation of Evidence of Spoliation to the Jury

Posted in CASE SUMMARIES

Brookshire Bros., Ltd. v. Aldridge, –S.W.3d–, 2014 WL 2994435 (Tex. July 3, 2013)

In this case, the Supreme Court of Texas “enunciate[d] with greater clarity the standards governing whether an act of spoliation has occurred and the parameters of a trial court’s discretion to impose a remedy upon a finding of spoliation, including submission of a spoliation instruction to the jury” and held that such an instruction is only appropriate when the destruction of evidence was intentional or deprived the opposing party of “any meaningful ability to present a claim or defense.”  The court also concluded that “[s]poliation findings—and their related sanctions—are to be determined by the trial judge, outside the presence of the jury, in order to avoid unfairly prejudicing the jury by the presentation of evidence that is unrelated to the facts underlying the lawsuit” and that “[a]ccordingly, evidence bearing directly upon whether a party has spoliated evidence is not to be presented to the jury except insofar as it relates to the substance of the lawsuit.”  Applying the newly-articulated standards to the facts of the case before it, the court held that “imposition of the severe sanction of a spoliation instruction was an abuse of discretion” and that the trial court erred “in admitting evidence of the circumstances of the spoliating conduct.”  Accordingly, the judgment of the court of appeals was reversed, and the case was remanded for a new trial.

Plaintiff/Respondent (“Plaintiff”) slipped and fell at defendant/petitioner’s (“Defendant”) store and sued for damages.  The fall was captured on surveillance video and defendant preserved the video footage from the time plaintiff entered the store until a short time after he fell.  The remainder of the video was automatically erased after approximately 30 days.  At trial “significant emphasis” was placed on defendant’s failure to preserve the whole video and the jury was given a spoliation instruction and “permitted . . . to decide whether spoliation occurred during its deliberations on the merits of the lawsuit.”  The jury ultimately found in favor of the plaintiff and the court of appeals affirmed, holding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting evidence of spoliation or by charging the jury with a spoliation instruction.

The Supreme Court disagreed.  In short, following substantial analysis of the law surrounding spoliation, the court held that a spoliation instruction is only warranted “when the trial court finds that the spoliating party acted with the specific intent of concealing discoverable evidence, and that a less severe remedy would be insufficient to reduce the prejudice caused by the spoliation” or, absent intent, “in the rare situation in which a nonspoliating party has been irreparably deprived of any meaningful ability to present a claim or defense.”  The court clarified that “intentional spoliation” included the concept of “‘willful blindness,’ which encompasses the scenario in which a party does not directly destroy evidence known to be relevant and discoverable, but nonetheless ‘allows for its destruction.’” Regarding the question of “whether evidence bearing solely on whether a party spoliated evidence or the party’s degree of culpability in doing so relates to a ‘fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action’” (i.e. is relevant), the court held that “it does not” and further instructed that “there is no basis on which to allow the jury to hear evidence that is unrelated to the merits of the case, but serves only to highlight the spoliating party’s breach and culpability.”  Thus, the court instructed that “evidence bearing directly upon whether a party has spoliated evidence is not to be presented to the jury except insofar as it relates to the substance of the lawsuit.”  The court clarified, however, that “all references to missing evidence” could not and should not be foreclosed.  (Thus, for example, a party may present “indirect evidence to attempt to prove the contents of missing evidence that is otherwise relevant . . . such as a person’s testimony about the content of a missing document, photo, or recording.”)

In the present case, the court reasoned that there was no evidence of the requisite intent to conceal or destroy relevant evidence or that plaintiff was “irreparably deprived of any meaningful ability to present his claim” and held that the trial court therefore abused its discretion in submitting a spoliation instruction.  The court further held that the trial court erred in admitting “evidence of the circumstances surrounding the failure to preserve additional video footage, though only to the extent such evidence was unrelated to the merits and served principally to highlight Brookshire Brothers’ culpability.”  Because the court also held that the trial court’s error “probably cased the rendition of an improper judgment”, the judgment of the court of appeals was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.

A copy of the full opinion is available here.