Court Affirms Adverse Inference Sanction and Inadmissibility of Spoliation-related Prejudicial Evidence

Foust, et al. v. McFarland, et al., 698 N.W. 2d 24 (Minn. Ct. App. 2005)

On May 15, 1998, Jeffrey L. Foust (“Foust”) suffered brain and other injuries when his vehicle was struck by a truck driven by John R. McFarland (“McFarland”). The truck had failed to yield at an intersection where traffic signals had been disabled by a storm. A jury awarded Plaintiffs $11,310,464, despite a finding that Foust had intentionally destroyed electronic evidence.

Appellants raised several issues on appeal, including whether the district court erred in applying Minnesota law in connection with spoliation of evidence and whether it erred in barring the introduction of certain evidence pertaining to the circumstances of the spoliation.

The district court had ordered production of Foust’s computer, and after the trial had begun the appellants’ expert discovered that some data had been permanently deleted. Based on this evidence of spoliation, appellants moved for dismissal of negligence claims or, in the alternative, mistrial, continuance or an adverse inference instruction. Appellants’ expert testified soon thereafter (outside the presence of the jury) that he found other material on the computer including evidence of child pornography, correspondence involving Foust, and illegal downloads of intellectual property. Much of this evidence was disallowed. Appellants also asserted that the expert found unallocated hard drive space which had been scrubbed using a “WipeInfo” program.

The district court decided to sanction respondents with an adverse inference instruction, but any evidence of the child pornography or other bad acts was “unnecessarily confusing, misleading, cumulative, and more prejudicial than probative” and would be inadmissible. Further, neither appellant’s expert nor Faust could be questioned regarding circumstances surrounding the spoliation.

The court of appeals held that the district court properly applied current Minnesota spoliation law as provided in Patton v. Newmar Corp., 538 N.W.2d 116 (Minn. 1995), which provides broad authority in determining sanctions. Appellants unsuccessfully argued that Patton does not apply and appellate review of sanctions should be de novo rather than under an abuse of discretion standard since this matter involved the intentional, bad faith destruction of evidence. The application of Patton is not limited to cases involving negligent or unintentional destruction of evidence.

Appellants also argued that since the data had been destroyed, the district court could not accurately determine prejudice and stronger, punitive sanctions are appropriate. The court of appeals, however, found that both the record and the law supports the district court’s conclusion that the missing evidence did not substantially and materially affect the overall claim. The intentional nature of the spoliation is a factor, but there is no need for a new rule of law calling for a presumption of dismissal with prejudice under such circumstances.

The district court’s decision to bar certain evidence concerning the spoliation was not found to be in error. Appellants argued that the evidence of child pornography “bore on the weight to be given to Foust’s injuries and L. Foust’s consortium claim.” Also, appellants wanted their expert to testify that a computer user sophisticated enough to use deletion software correctly shows a high level of intelligence and cognitive ability which would bear on the extent of the brain injury. The appeals court found no reason to disturb the district court’s finding that such evidence amounted to character assassination and would be more prejudicial than probative.

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