Court Weighs Factors in Consideration of the Spoliation-of-Evidence Doctrine’s Application in the Summary Judgement Context
Hartung Commercial Properties, Inc. v. Buffi’s Automotive Equipment and Supply Company, Inc.
On July 8, 2011, Hartung sued Buffi’s Automotive (Buffi’s), Har-Mar (the operator of Hartung’s body shop), and several fictitiously named defendants asserting claims of negligence and wantonness that arose from a fire that destroyed Hartung’s body shop. Relying on the spoliation-of-evidence doctrine, Buffi’s moved for summary judgment on all claims that Hartung asserted against it. Buffi’s alleged that Hartung ordered the demolition of the body shop and all the equipment inside of it without notifying Buffi’s and giving it the opportunity to inspect the body shop before it was demolished. Buffi’s argued that the demolition of the body shop hindered its ability to provide a defense. Hartung argued that Buffi’s had not produced any expert testimony indicating that the written reports and photographs taken by local, state, and federal investigators were insufficient for Buffi’s defense.
The circuit court considered Buffi’s motion and weighed five factors: (1) the importance of the evidence destroyed, (2) the culpability of the offending party, (3) fundamental fairness, (4) alternative sources of the information that would have been available from the evidence destroyed, and (5) the possible effectiveness of other sanctions less severe than dismissal. The circuit court ultimately found in favor of Buffi’s on each factor and granted its motion for summary judgment. Hartung filed two motions to reconsider, both of which were denied. Hartung appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court.
With regard to the first, third, and fourth factors relied on by the circuit court, the Alabama Supreme Court emphasized that the importance of the destroyed evidence “must be evaluated in the context of the importance of the evidence that was preserved or otherwise available.” The Court noted that Buffi’s failed to provide “actual evidence” that the alternative sources of information were inadequate. The Court also noted that Buffi’s could have deposed several individuals, who investigated the fire, took photographs, and drafted detailed reports, to prove that the available evidence was insufficient for its defense. Yet, this was not done. Thus, the Court held that there was not enough evidence to conclude that the available information was an inadequate alternative and that it would be fundamentally unfair to allow Hartung to proceed with its claims against Buffi’s.
Because Buffi’s failed to present evidence as to the first, third, and fourth factors, the Court held that the circuit court was not justified in the dismissal of Hartung’s claims as opposed to a lesser sanction. Therefore, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the circuit court’s decision to dismiss Hartung’s claims against Buffi’s.