Court Denies Defendant’s Motion for a New Trial with regard to Trial Court’s Spoliation-of-Evidence Instruction
Campbell Jr., and Tomlin Construction, LLC v. Kennedy
On June 17, 2010, Eduard David Evans Kennedy and his four passengers were traveling in the northbound lane on U.S. Highway 43 in Greene County. A Caterpillar motor grader belonging to Tomlin Construction, LLC, and operated by its employee, Stuart McQuaid Campbell Jr., was in the same northbound lane due to a construction project it had with the Alabama Department of Transportation. When Kennedy attempted to pass the motor grader on the left side by crossing the double-yellow line into the southbound lane, the motor grader turned left as well, causing a collision between Kennedy’s vehicle and the motor grader’s front left wheel housing and steer axle.
Two months after the accident, Kennedy filed a damages action alleging negligence against Campbell Jr., in his operation of the motor grader, and Tomlin Construction, as his employer. In addition, Kennedy moved for summary judgment, or alternatively for sanctions, alleging that Larry Tomlin, the owner of Tomlin Construction, had engaged in the spoliation of evidence. Kennedy asserted that his counsel sent a preservation letter to Tomlin one week after the accident indicating that the motor grader was vital to their investigation of the accident and that Kennedy’s counsel expected to be able to inspect the motor grader. Kennedy also alleged that the letter requested that the motor grader remain in its immediate post-accident condition until Kennedy’s counsel could perform the inspection.
In a reply letter, Tomlin informed Kennedy’s counsel that the motor grader remained at Tomlin Construction’s worksite and agreed to halt all repairs to the motor grader until Kennedy’s counsel could inspect the motor grader on July 19, 2010. However, when Kennedy’s counsel arrived to inspect the motor grader, the damaged front axle had been removed from the motor grader. Tomlin denied that he knew that there was potential for litigation at the time he removed the damaged front axle or that he did so to impede the inspection of Kennedy’s counsel. Ultimately, the trial court denied Kennedy’s motion for summary judgment and/or sanctions for the alleged spoliation of evidence but did allow Kennedy to present his spoliation-of-evidence claim to the jury. The jury returned a $3,000,000 verdict in Kennedy’s favor which prompted Tomlin Construction and Campbell Jr. to appeal the decision. Tomlin Construction and Campbell Jr. contended that the trial court committed reversible error in its jury charge on the spoliation of evidence doctrine as an inference of negligence or guilt.
On appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court noted that Tomlin was in fact informed of the threat of litigation after receiving the letter from Kennedy’s counsel. Because Tomlin made no effort to halt the scheduled repairs of the front axle after receiving the letter, the Court found that there was a sufficient foundation for the jury charge on the spoliation of evidence doctrine. Thus, the Court held that the jury charge had no prejudicial effect on the trial because there was no evidence from the record that the “jury's verdict was aimed at punishing the defendants for the alleged spoliation rather than merely compensating Kennedy for his injuries.”