What Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow Has to Do With Spoliation

For more than a century, the debate has raged over whether Mrs. O’Leary and her famous cow truly started The Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Were the tragic events of that conflagration to happen today, someone would ask Mrs. O’Leary to produce the “RFID” chip in her bovine. (You know they would). They would contend that this key evidence could show the whereabouts and movement of the cow at the time the fire began.  When she could not produce it, they would claim not only that she started the fire that destroyed a swath of Chicago, but that she also destroyed the evidence of her guilt. They would cry “spoliation.”

“Spoliation” is the legal term for the improper destruction or alteration of evidence to prevent its use in litigation. It is also an ugly word and its presence in litigation can lead to ugly results. While this doctrine has existed in some form or the other for hundreds of years, understanding the concept may prove to be even more important now in a time when reams of documents can be stored on a “zip drive” smaller than a stick of gum and information can be maintained in a multiplicity of ways previously unthinkable.

To prove spoliation, a litigant must demonstrate that their adversary in litigation: (1) knew of a lawsuit or had a reasonable expectation that a lawsuit would follow; (2) failed to produce relevant evidence without an explanation; and, (3) participated in intentional conduct to alter, secret, or destroy the evidence. It is important to note that a defendant is not responsible under the doctrine of spoliation when the defendant’s failure to produce evidence is adequately explained.

A party who discovers that evidence has been spoliated has options. They may ask the court to enter an adverse presumption. If allowed, a court may instruct the jury that the missing or altered evidence would have been unfavorable to the party who destroyed it.  Depending upon the nature and relevancy of the evidence, the court may have grounds to strike claims or defenses relevant to the evidence.

Another option is to file a formal claim against the party who spoliated the evidence. This type of claim alleges that the alleged “spoliator” impaired a party’s ability to win or defend a law suit. In Louisiana, all five appellate circuit courts have recognized the tort of spoliation.

The issues surrounding spoliation have been magnified by technology. Meaningful information can now be found on almost anything: “smart refrigerators”; product sensors; a car’s “black box” that may reveal the speed at the time of impact; SMS information on a phone, computer, or tablet; and on and on.  Consider further the increasing scope of surveillance video recorded at businesses, schools, hospitals, and even homes, which is complicated by the fact that many systems automatically “write over” prior video in a matter of days, weeks, or months.

In short, it’s a good time for everyone to understand the doctrine of spoliation. The chance that some party will loudly proclaim that your spoliation of evidence adversely affected their case continues to increase. Being aware of the potential spoliation issues that may arise when a suit has been filed, or is expected to be filed, may save your case. It may also save you the time, money, and distraction involved in defending a  claim that you have spoliated key evidence.


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