Sanctions rejected where evidence was destroyed pursuant to routine, good-faith records management practice before receipt of any notice of a likelihood of litigationDecember 8th, 2009 | By Steve Puiszis
Today’s post demonstrates the importance of a document retention/destruction policy applicable to a company’s paper and electronic records that is consistently applied and routinely followed.
In Mohrmeyer, plaintiff sought discovery sanctions in the form of an adverse inference instruction because Wal-Mart failed to preserve certain records relevant to his accident. The particular record, a maintenance log, was not typically preserved in the ordinary course of the company’s business. It was routinely discarded on a weekly basis. Plaintiff noted that Wal-Mart employees attended to him immediately after his fall, called 911 and summoned an ambulance to take him to the hospital. As a result, the plaintiff in Mohrmeyer claimed that Wal-Mart’s duty to preserve all relevant documents was triggered immediately following his fall because Wal-Mart “should have known” that his accident would result in litigation.
Mohrmeyer is significant because the court recognized:
The law does not and should not require businesses to preserve any and all records that may be relevant to future litigation for any accidental injury, customer dispute, employment dispute, or any number of other possible circumstances that may give rise to a claim months or years in the future, and there is absolutely no contemporaneous indication that a claim is likely to result at the time the records are destroyed pursuant to a routine records management policy.
That Wal-Mart preserved some records relating to the plaintiff’s accident pursuant to its policy involving accidental injuries did not change the result in the court’s view because the particular maintenance log was only temporarily retained and was routinely discarded. Merely because Wal-Mart summoned an ambulance for the plaintiff did not make the litigation more likely to occur. The court found no deliberate or improper conduct by Wal-Mart involving its failure to preserve what the court described as a “transient record.”
The court recognized that a duty to preserve applies only when a party has been put on notice that evidence is relevant to pending litigation or which may be relevant to future litigation that is likely to occur. It concluded that at the time the maintenance log was discarded, there only existed a speculative possibility that a lawsuit might be brought. The court observed that before the log was destroyed Wal-Mart had received no telephonic or written warning from the plaintiff or his counsel raising the possibility of a lawsuit and there was no history of litigation between the parties which made a lawsuit more likely to occur. The court was not willing “to presuppose the likelihood of litigation for every slip and fall accident that occurs.”
The court in Mohrmeyer distinguished the factual scenario presented from an airline disaster where the “trigger date” for the preservation of evidence would clearly be the date of the disaster “because of the high likelihood of litigation following such [an event].” The mere fact that an accident had occurred was insufficient to establish that litigation was likely to ensue.
The court also noted that the plaintiff testified in his deposition that he did not even consider filing a lawsuit until a couple of months after the accident occurred, which was long after the maintenance records were destroyed in the ordinary course of the company’s business. This is a good practice point to remember in discovery in any matter where discovery sanctions potentially may be sought.
Accordingly, Mohrmeyer concluded that when evidence is destroyed pursuant to a company’s “routine, good-faith records management practices” before any notice of the likelihood of litigation is received, discovery sanctions of any type are not warranted.Leave a Comment »