The Texas Supreme Court recently handed down its long-awaited decision concerning the spoliation of evidence in Brookshire Brothers, Ltd. v. Jerry Aldridge, 2014 Tex. LEXIS 562 (Tex. 2014). Spoliation concerns the improper destruction of evidence, proof of which may give rise to a presumption that the missing evidence was unfavorable to the spoliator.
The underlying facts of the Aldridge case involve a slip-and-fall at a Brookshire Brothers grocery store. Id. at *5-6. The fall was recorded by a surveillance camera that recorded video in a continuous loop which, after thirty days, recorded over itself. Id. at *6. After the customer reported his injury to the grocery store, the grocery store decided to retain and copy approximately eight minutes of the video, beginning just before the customer entered the store, and ending shortly after the fall. Id at *7. The remainder of the video from that day was later recorded over pursuant to the grocery store’s retention policy. Id.
The slip-and-fall claimant asked the trial court to submit a spoliation instruction to the jury, arguing that Brookshire Brothers’ failure to preserve the additional video footage from the day of the fall amounted to spoliation of evidence. Id. at *9. Namely, he argued that such evidence would have been helpful to determining the key issue of whether the spill was on the floor long enough to give Brookshire Brothers a reasonable opportunity to discover it. Id. The trial court agreed, and submitted a spoliation instruction to the jury stating that if they found that spoliation had occurred, they could consider such spoliated evidence to have been unfavorable to Brookshire Brothers. Id. at *10-11.
On appeal, the Texas Supreme Court found that the trial court abused its discretion in submitting the spoliation instruction. Id. at *48. The Court held that “a party must intentionally spoliate evidence in order for a spoliation instruction to constitute an appropriate remedy.” Id. at *32. Here, the Court did not find any intentional destruction of evidence; rather, the evidence was simply destroyed pursuant to Brookshire Brothers’ retention policy. Id. at *44-46. Notably, the Court crafted a “narrow exception” for situations in which “a party’s negligent breach of its duty to reasonably preserve evidence irreparably prevents the nonspoliating party from having any meaningful opportunity to present a claim or defense.” Id. at *38.
Aldridge is a big win for Texas businesses and the Texas defense bar. As noted in the Aldridge dissent, the Court’s holding “potentially provides future litigants with a blueprint for successfully shielding themselves from spoliation liability: simply establish a document retention policy with a limited duration.” Id. at *78. It will be interesting to see how Texas courts handle spoliation issues in light of Aldridge, and it will particularly be interesting to see whether the “narrow exception” carved out for negligent destruction of evidence stays narrow, or is broadened.
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