What Is Spoliation Of Evidence (And How Badly Can It Wreck Your Lawsuit)?

Spoliation of evidence is the term used when some sort of evidence that's important to a lawsuit is lost, destroyed, altered, or hidden. It can happen accidentally or on purpose, and it can wreck your personal injury case. Learn more about what spoliation means and how it can affect your case. 

Was the spoliation accidental or purposeful?

There will always be legal consequences to the spoliation of evidence. However, the court is likely to impose a far more severe penalty if it believes (or knows) that the spoliation was done on purpose.

For example, one personal injury client and his attorney saw a multi-million dollar case implode after the attorney directed his client to "clean up" his social media account. The client deleted several photos that indicated he wasn't as depressed and grieved as he claimed following the accidental death of his wife. The court ended up granting the defendants in the case $700,000 in fees and costs, sanctioning both the attorney and the plaintiff.

Accidental spoliation occurs far more often. Coffee can get spilled on a mechanic's report and someone can end up throwing it away, not realizing that it will be needed a few months later when a piece of faulty machinery causes an injury. A lab report showing somebody's blood alcohol levels gets misfiled under a wrong name and lost. Courts may try to minimize the damage to a case when spoliation is clearly an accident or unintentional, but some harm to the case is always going to be done.

What are the potential sanctions for spoliation?

Different courts take different approaches to the issue of spoliation. How bad the results are in your particular case can depend on the specific evidence involved, the local jurisdiction, or even the particular judge hearing the case. Several results are possible:

  • The court may instruct the jury to assume that any lost evidence would have automatically harmed the case of the side the caused the spoliation. This is highly likely to result in a verdict for the opposition.
  • The court may refuse to allow the party that caused the spoliation to introduce any expert testimony or other testimony about the missing evidence. This could merely damage a case or destroy it for the side that's sanctioned, depending on how critical that testimony might be to the case.
  • The court might direct a verdict against the side that caused the spoliation if it finds that the missing evidence is that critical to the case.
  • The court might impose monetary sanctions in the form of attorney's fees, fines, or even punitive damages (which are designed to punish a party in a lawsuit in order to discourage others from similar behavior).

If you're involved in a lawsuit, always act cautiously regarding any documents or photos (including things like social media accounts and texts). Take steps to preserve anything that you think might be relevant, even if it could potentially damage your case. It's better to have to offer an explanation for evidence that could damage your case than to have your case destroyed because you're unable to produce the evidence at all. For further assistance, contact a local personal injury attorney, such as one from Burgess & Perigard.