25 Jun Case Analysis: Smith et al. v. Williams – Evidence of Spoliation
The Sixth Appellate District in Texarkana recently issued its opinion in Smith et al. v. Williams, overturning a $4 million verdict in a trucking accident case in part because of the trial judge’s erroneous ruling on spoliation. In doing so, they significantly raised the burden of proof for spoliation.
Simply put, spoliation is when a party destroys or withholds evidence. In order to issue an instruction to the jury that a party destroyed evidence, the trial court must determine first that spoliation occurred (in other words, the judge cannot simply submit the spoliation question to the jury). In Smith, the judge made such a finding, but was subsequently overruled by the Court of Appeals.
The court in this case claimed it was doing an abuse of discretion review of a trial court fact-finding about defendant’s intent to destroy evidence, but that’s not what it actually did in its opinion.
One way to read the court’s opinion is to say that the court thought there was no evidence of an intention to destroy, and this is apparently what the court thought they were doing. Certainly, if there were no evidence it would make sense to overturn the trial court’s decision as an abuse of discretion, and the decision would fit easily into the general Brookshire Brothers analysis. But even though the court concluded there was no evidence, that’s not actually correct. What was lacking was direct evidence. There was circumstantial evidence that would have allowed the trial court to find that the missing information was missing because it was intentionally destroyed. What the court did here, sub silentio, is conclude that such circumstantial evidence is insufficient for a finding of intent to destroy. In so doing, they placed a burden to plaintiffs to produce direct evidence of intent to destroy, under the guise of a conclusion that there was no evidence.
The problem with the Smith et al. v. Williams ruling is that because of the way the court formulated the standard of review and plaintiffs’ burden of proof at trial for spoliation, any excuse could be sufficient to avoid a spoliation instruction unless plaintiffs have a smoking gun, which is going to be rare.
As a result, then, the court transformed abuse of discretion review of a fact finding at trial into a presumption in favor of defendants once they present an excuse, which is rebuttable only by the most damning of evidence.