Eastern District of Pennsylvania Clarifies Standard for Imposing Spoliation Sanctions

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A party is not entitled to a spoliation sanction without proof that the alleged spoliation was beyond accident or mere negligence.

October 19, 2020
Kean Maynard - The Subrogation Strategist

Courts are faced with the difficult task of drawing a line to determine when the failure to preserve evidence becomes culpable enough to permit a judicial remedy. In State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. Cohen, No. 19-1947, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 163681, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (District Court) made clear that a party is not entitled to a spoliation sanction without proof that the alleged spoliation was beyond accident or mere negligence. The District Court emphasized that when evidence goes missing or is destroyed, the party seeking a spoliation sanction must show that the alleged spoliation was intentional and that the alleged spoliator acted in “bad faith” before adverse inferences will be provided.

In Cohen, Joshua Cohen (Cohen) rented a residential property to Lugretta Bryant (Bryant). Bryant’s property suffered damages as a result of a kitchen fire. Bryant’s insurer, proceeding as subrogee, hired a fire investigator to determine the cause and origin of the fire. Based on eyewitness testimony and examination of the burn patterns, the fire investigator concluded that the fire started at the General Electric (GE) microwave located in the kitchen. The investigator advised all parties to preserve the microwave so that a joint examination could take place with the property owner and GE present. In the following weeks, the tenant returned to the property to collect belongings and perform some cleaning in anticipation of repairs beginning. Importantly, the tenant claimed the microwave was preserved during these cleaning efforts and remained at the site as instructed. However, in the fall of 2017, one of Cohen’s workers discovered that the microwave was missing and its whereabouts remain unknown.

Mr. Maynard may be contacted at maynardk@whiteandwilliams.com



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