Spoliation of Evidence in Tractor-trailer accident in Tennessee

In a recent Tennessee appellate decision, the court considered a lawsuit arising out of a tractor-trailer accident. One of the plaintiffs was hauling a trailer owned by the defendant with an over-the-road tractor. The hauler’s wife was riding as a passenger on the accident date. The hauler and his wife filed suit claiming that the accident happened because the trailer’s tandem axle suddenly came loose as they went down the highway and that the tractor-trailer overturned. The wife was injured and the trailer and tractor were damaged.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged that the owner of the trailer had exclusive control over it and had negligently inspected and maintained it and hadn’t made sure the trailer complied with all federal motor vehicle safety standards. The plaintiffs claimed the trailer had caused the accident and that the wife had suffered severe and permanent bodily injuries as a result of the accident. The plaintiffs also claimed the husband had incurred lost wages due to total loss of the tractor. They asked for damages of $850,000 and later added a request for punitive damages, claiming that the defendant falsified its year inspection reports.

The defendant answered, denying claims of negligence and wrongdoing. The defendant claimed that the causes of the accident were the plaintiff’s speeding and failure to control the tractor and use reasonable care. It also claimed the plaintiff hadn’t performed the requisite pre-trip inspection in accord with federal motor carrier safety regulations and that his own negligence barred recovery.

The defendant moved for spoliation sanctions under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 34A.02. It claimed that the plaintiff had discarded the tractor by giving it up to the insurer. It also claimed there were no witnesses to the accident, so its expert had to examine the tractor and decide whether there was a mechanical problem that might have triggered the accident. The defendant claimed undue prejudice and asked that the plaintiffs’ claims be dismissed.

The plaintiffs responded that there had been no willful disposal of the tractor. They also requested sanctions claiming that the defendant had produced falsified inspection records during discovery. The lower court held a hearing. The plaintiffs asked to exclude the defendant’s expert’s testimony.

The lower court decided that the defendant had been prejudiced by the unavailability of the tractor and ordered the plaintiffs to locate and produce the tractor in 30 days. It ordered that if the plaintiff’s didn’t comply, their complaint would be dismissed.

The plaintiffs asked for reconsideration, explaining that the tractor was with the insurer and that they’d learned the engine had been taken out and the chassis sold for salvage by their insurer.

When the defendant alerted the court that the tractor wasn’t produced, the court granted the motion for sanctions.

The court addressed the motion for spoliation sanctions. The Tennessee Supreme Court clarified that a totality of circumstances analysis had to be used. Factors to be considered included: how responsible the spoliating party was in destroying the evidence, extent of prejudice suffered, whether the spoliating party knew or should have known the evidence would be relevant to litigation, and the least serious sanction that could provide a remedy caused by prejudice.

In this case, there was no intentional misconduct or fraudulent intent. The court pointed out, however, that intentional misconduct wasn’t necessary to impose sanctions. The plaintiff’s own attorney had sent a spoliation of evidence letter to the defendant. The plaintiffs had known the tractor would need to be examined to determine the cause of the wreck. The court also found that there was severe prejudice to the defendant in not having the tractor available for inspection.

The appellate court concluded there was no abuse of discretion in imposing a sanction of dismissal for spoliation of evidence.

Knowledgeable Tennessee truck accident attorney Eric Beasley can examine your case and determine all possible sources of compensation. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Court Dismisses Truck Accident Case Where Plaintiffs Failed To Preserve Evidence, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, May 2, 2018.

Tennessee Court Reverses Summary Judgment Ruling Based on Comparative Fault, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 13, 2017

Tennessee Court Employs Rule of Seven to Evaluate Comparative Negligence Claim Against Minor, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, December 13, 2016