Spoliation: What Happens if a Truck Company Erases a Driver’s Tracking Data After an Accident?
What Happens if a Truck Company Erases a Driver’s Tracking Data After an Accident?
“Spoliation” refers to the destruction or failure to preserve evidence that’s necessary to a possible or pending lawsuit. If a court determines that spoliation has occurred, the judge can impose a penalty on that party.
After a truck accident, your personal injury lawyer should be quick to send a comprehensive spoliation letter to the truck company, driver, and insurance company advising them to preserve important evidence from the crash such as cell phone, Lytx camera footage, the tractor itself and documents.
If your Atlanta personal injury lawyer is not sending that letter, your lawyer doesn’t know what he is doing.
In a recent decision, the Georgia Court of Appeals reviewed whether a spoliation instruction was improperly given to the jury in an accident involving a tractor-trailer.
The Accident and the Plaintiff’s Request for the Truck’s Tracking Data
The plaintiff, Larry Collier was driving to work in the early morning hours in July 2017 when he struck a deer that had entered the roadway. A commercial truck driver for Cowan Systems was following Collier, and he struck Collier’s car. Collier was injured when his car landed in a ditch. Collier said that the truck driver was speeding and following too closely at the time of the accident. The semi driver was in fact cited for following too closely.
After Collier was injured in the accident with the big rig, he sued the trucking company and the driver. Collier requested that they preserve evidence created by a tracking device on the truck. Day after the accident, Collier’s attorney sent the trucking company a preservation letter, seeking to protect data collected by an OmniTRAC GPS system installed in the big rig. This tracker collected speed and location data at certain times during the ride, depending on when the tracker “pinged.” This data could confirm the semi’s speed and location at the time of the accident.
However, the trucking company had only recently started installing the OmniTRAC system in its trucks, and it hadn’t yet established a process for downloading and saving the electronic reports. Thus, when the trucking company’s legal staff received the preservation letter, they didn’t know the tracker was on the truck, nor did they know how to access and save the data.
But the trucking company did preserve other tracking data in its logs that would have shown the truck’s location at the time of the accident, but not its speed.
Collier argued that the trucking company was vicariously liable for its driver’s speeding and driving in violation of the hours of service regulations applicable to commercial drivers, as well as negligent for the failure to train and supervise him, and for permitting him to drive with the knowledge that he violated the rules of the road and commercial driving regulations.
The Plaintiff Requests a Spoliation Sanction
When the trucking company couldn’t produce the data because it hadn’t been preserved, Collier requested a spoliation sanction. He argued that the lost data was important to his claims of speeding and alleged violations of hours in service, as well as to the claim for punitive damages. In response, the trucking company acknowledged that the data was important to Collier’s case but said that some of the data was available from other reports. Therefore, it suggested that the trial court prohibit the driver from testifying as a sanction to cure the prejudice of the lost evidence. After a hearing, the trial court granted the motion and determined that it would instruct the jury as to the following:
- The truck driver had been speeding and was in violation of hours of service regulations at the time of the accident;
- The truck driver had a pattern and practice of these behaviors; and
- The trucking company was aware of these violations.
An Adverse Jury Instruction is a Severe Sanction
Unhappy with this ruling on the jury instruction, the trucking company appealed, arguing that the sanction imposed was unsupported by the trial court’s findings. Moreover, it claimed that the trial court erred in fashioning its sanction because it improperly weighed the relevant factors, and there was no evidence the company acted in bad faith or intentionally spoliated the evidence.
Although the trucking company contends that Collier sought only the speed data, a review of the motion for sanctions, and the renewed motion, show that Collier sought both speed data and hours of service logs.
Judge Todd Markle wrote in his opinion that once the trial court determines that spoliation occurred—a fact the trucking company didn’t dispute here—it then considers the following factors in determining the appropriate penalty for spoliation:
- whether the party seeking sanctions was prejudiced as a result of the destroyed evidence;
- whether the prejudice could be cured;
- the practical importance of the evidence;
- whether the destroying party acted in good or bad faith; and
- the potential for abuse if any expert testimony about the destroyed evidence was not excluded.
The judge explained that to remedy the prejudice resulting from evidence spoliation, a trial court is authorized to:
- charge the jury that spoliation of evidence creates the rebuttable presumption that the evidence would have been harmful to the spoliator;
- dismiss the case; or
- exclude testimony about the evidence.
However, that’s not an exhaustive list of sanctions a trial court may impose, and the court has “wide latitude to fashion sanctions on a case-by-case basis, considering what is appropriate and fair under the circumstances,” the judge wrote, citing a 2008 case.
But Judge Markle said that an adverse jury instruction is a severe sanction that is generally appropriate only in response to the intentional destruction of material evidence. Instead, he noted what the Court of Appeals said in a recent case from March:
[T]he loss of relevant evidence due to mere negligence normally should result in lesser sanctions, if any at all … because information lost through negligence may have been favorable to either party, including the party that lost it, and inferring that it was unfavorable to that party may tip the balance at trial in ways the lost information never would have.
Court of Appeals Says Jury Instruction Too Harsh
Thus, Judge Markle found that the trial court abused its discretion in imposing the presumptive jury instruction as its sanction. Despite the fact that the trial court considered the relevant factors, it nevertheless imposed a sanction that was too harsh under the circumstances.
The judge found that the first and third factors were satisfied. The evidence was of practical importance to Collier’s claims, and he was prejudiced by its destruction. But the remaining factors didn’t support the trial court’s sanction. The data that was lost could possibly have captured the driver’s speed and location at the time of the accident, depending on exactly when the system “pinged” and registered the data. However, there were other ways of getting evidence of the truck driver’s location, and the company produced its logs that appeared to show the truck driver speeding and in violation of hours of service requirements on other occasions.
In evaluating whether the prejudice could be cured, the trial court looked at the inability to cross-reference the tracker’s data with the other logs, but the logs that were produced showed violations. Also, at his deposition, Collier stated that he believed the driver was speeding and following too closely, and it was likely that he would testify to that at trial— and there was no evidence to rebut that testimony. Thus, Judge Markle said the ability to cure — or at least minimize — the prejudice didn’t weigh in support of the trial court’s harsh sanction.
And, as to the fourth factor, the trial court expressly found that the company didn’t intentionally destroy the data or act in bad faith. Nevertheless, the trial court imposed a sanction that essentially instructed the jury to find in Collier’s favor. Judge Markle found nothing in the court’s order that showed that it considered a lesser sanction and found it insufficient under the facts of the case.
Therefore, although the trial court properly found that a spoliation sanction was warranted, it erred in the harsh sanction it imposed. As a result, the sanction was vacated, and the case was remanded. Cowan Systems, LLC v. Collier, 2021 Ga. App. LEXIS 548 (Ga. App. November 3, 2021).
Speak to an Experienced Atlanta Truck Accident Attorney
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