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By: Sean Ryan
The Georgia Supreme Court recently clarified that same duty and standard applies to a plaintiff as to a defendant in assessing potential spoliation claims. In Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. v. Koch, 303 Ga. 336 (2018), the Georgia Supreme Court stressed that the duty to preserve relevant evidence is “defined the same for plaintiffs and defendants” and “arises when the alleged spoliator actually or reasonably should have anticipated litigation.” While a plaintiff’s duty to preserve relevant evidence may more often revolve around the actual knowledge of litigation because a plaintiff largely controls when to bring a lawsuit, a plaintiff still “must act reasonably in anticipating whether litigation arising from an injury will occur.” In addressing reasonableness, a court should consider a non-exhaustive list of factors such as the type and extent of the injury, whether fault for the injury is clear, the level of sophistication of the party and familiarity with the likelihood of litigation is similar situations, and whether the party has hired an attorney, expert, or investigator.
In Koch, plaintiff’s husband died following a car accident where a tire tread, manufactured by Cooper Tire, separated from the left rear tire of the husband’s vehicle, allegedly causing the vehicle to strike a guardrail and overturn. The plaintiff allowed the vehicle and three tires without tread separation to be destroyed, saving only the allegedly defective tire. In the ensuing litigation, Cooper Tire moved to dismiss the lawsuit or impose sanctions against the plaintiff for spoliation of evidence.
Using the standard outlined above, the Supreme Court held the trial court did not err in finding the plaintiff did not actually contemplate litigation at the time the car was destroyed and should not reasonably have contemplated litigation. The Court cited the plaintiff’s lack of previous litigation experience, the belief by plaintiff and her husband that he would recover from his injuries, the plaintiff’s lack of investigation into the accident, and the plaintiff’s decision to retain counsel after the vehicle was destroyed. The Supreme Court also credited the fact that plaintiff’s counsel took steps to preserve evidence, albeit fruitless, once hired several weeks later.
What does this mean for defendants in tort cases moving forward? While the Court in Koch did not find the plaintiff’s conduct sanctionable, the case clarifies that a plaintiff must conform to the same standard as a defendant in preserving evidence relevant to their case and that this duty arises independent of the defendant’s duty. The case also sends a clear signal that a plaintiff will be expected to preserve evidence following consultation with an attorney or expert. Such consultation is a fair indicator that plaintiff anticipated or reasonably should have anticipated litigation. Armed with this case law, defendants are in a strong position to demand preservation of relevant evidence, including data from vehicles, cell phone data, and social media data.
If you have any questions or need more information, please contact Sean Ryan at [email protected].