Q: I was recently involved in a one-vehicle car wreck in Georgia. I’m still not sure exactly what happened, but I think something might have been wrong with my car. What should I do?
A: You should contact an experienced Atlanta auto accident attorney as soon as possible. In the meantime, it is extremely important that you preserve any and all evidence associated with the accident, including the vehicle itself.
Q: The car is totaled, and the storage fees are expensive. Why do I need to keep the car?
A: As the plaintiff in a recently decided Georgia Supreme Court case found out the hard way, it is extremely important to preserve evidence related to a crash, especially when you suspect that a product defect caused the accident. In the case, the widow of a man who died in a rollover crash only kept one tire off the man’s car – the one that allegedly blew out. The other tires and the vehicle itself were sold to a salvage yard for scrap. She later sued the maker of the tire, alleging a claim for product liability. The defendant sought dismissal of the complaint and sanctions against the plaintiff for spoliation of evidence.
Q: What is “spoliation of evidence?”
A: It refers to destruction of evidence, or failure to preserve evidence, that is relevant to contemplated or pending litigation. In other words, a person (or corporation) who destroys or fails to preserve evidence that could be relevant to a lawsuit later can be punished by the court system due to their breach of the duty to preserve evidence.
Q: What kind of punishment is possible?
A: It is possible that, if the case goes to trial, the jury may be instructed to presume that the evidence in question would have been adverse to the claim of the party who destroyed it. It is also possible that the trial court could dismiss the case because, without the evidence in question, the plaintiff simply doesn’t have enough proof of negligence or product liability to get the case in front of the jury.
Q: Does the duty to preserve evidence apply to both sides of a potential lawsuit?
A: Yes. As the case mentioned above pointed out, the duty is the same for both plaintiffs and defendants. This is true regardless of whether the parties are individuals, corporations, governments, or other entities. The only difference is when the duty is triggered. This must be considered in light of the perspective of the party who allegedly engaged in spoliation of evidence. In the case above, the court pointed out that the plaintiff typically controls if and when litigation will be pursued. The question then becomes whether litigation was actually contemplated at the time the evidence was lost or destroyed. In that case, the court held that, at the time that the vehicle and other tires were destroyed, the plaintiff did not yet have a duty to preserve evidence.
Q: So what was the net effect of not preserving the other tires and the vehicle in that case?
A: Although the plaintiff was not ultimately sanctioned, the fact that she did not preserve the vehicle and especially the other tires cost her several years of litigation that would otherwise have been unnecessary. Additionally, it may have hurt her case because her own expert witness did not have the other tires or the vehicle available for inspection when he or she was determining the cause of the accident. It is also worth noting that, in a different case, the court might have imposed sanctions, especially if the plaintiff should reasonably have anticipated litigation. For example, a person more learned in matters of the law, especially with regard to defective product litigation, might have a different duty to preserve evidence than the plaintiff here – who had “no apparent previous experience with litigation” – was not found to have had.
Q: How can I find out more about holding a vehicle manufacturer responsible for an accident caused by a defective product?
A: At the Law Offices of T. Andrew Miller, LLC, we handle a wide variety of Atlanta car accident cases, including those involving wrongful death. To schedule a free consultation regarding your case, call us now at 678-605-9109. We can help you investigate the cause of your accident by reviewing the evidence and, if necessary, contacting an accident reconstructionist or other expert witness to take a look at the accident scene, the vehicle, the accident report, and other pertinent information.