Spoliation Inference Resulting in Summary Judgment Denied

Paramount Pictures Corp. v. Davis, 234 F.R.D. 102 (E.D. Pa. 2005)

Paramount Pictures Corporation (“Paramount”) identified John Davis (“Davis”), a computer consultant, as having violated its exclusive rights to reproduce and distribute the motion picture “Lemony Snicket’s: A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Davis had allegedly obtained an illegal copy of the film and distributed it over the Internet via the eDonkey peer-to-peer distribution system.

Comcast Cable Communications determined that Davis was the subscriber using the IP address identified by Paramount’s anti-piracy specialist at the time of the alleged infringement. On March 9, Comcast notified Davis of its intention to reveal his identity, on March 25 Davis wiped his hard drive clean and re-installed an operating system (according to Kroll Ontrack Electronic Evidence Services), and on March 30 Comcast identified Davis at the suspected infringer.

Davis denied committing the infringement, claiming that he had been misidentified. He further claimed that he had erased his hard drive because he was selling his computer and that the operating system on the machine is incompatible with eDonkey. Paramount argued that Davis erased the drive to destroy evidence, a different operating system might have been installed on the machine prior to the spoliation, and it is unlikely that Davis would have been using the outdated incompatible operating system found on the machine.

Cross motions for summary judgment were filed. The Court found that Davis had a duty to preserve the computer’s memory, Paramount suffered prejudice from its destruction, and a spoliation inference sanction was appropriate. Paramount argued that a typical spoliation inference jury instruction is inapplicable given that no jury trial has been requested, and the Court should find as a matter of law that Davis had the film and the eDonkey software on his computer.

The Court did not grant the adverse inference at this point because: (1) it would be tantamount to granting summary judgment, a far more severe sanction, just for erasing the hard drive, (2) evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to Davis when considering Paramount’s motion for summary judgment, and no precedent could be found where a court has used the spoliation inference to determine an issue of fact in favor of granting summary judgment, and (3) an adverse inference is merely an inference that may be drawn, not a legal conclusion that must be reached based on evidence of willful destruction of relevant evidence.

The Court decided to take Davis’ spoliation into consideration at trial, but found that there remain issues of material fact which preclude granting motions for summary judgment.

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