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What Is Spoliation of Evidence?

The Law Office of Stephen Barker Oct. 4, 2023

Using Hammer on Hard Disk Drive to Destroy EvidenceIf your company is currently engaged in a dispute that could lead to litigation or the legal proceedings are already ongoing, it is crucial that you understand how cases involving the spoliation of evidence are handled by courts.  

Our attorney at The Law Office of Stephen Barker can help you take immediate action if you believe spoliation of evidence has occurred or is about to occur. We can help you with gathering and preserving important evidence, preventing the destruction of evidence by the other party, and restoring destroyed evidence in your business litigation case.  

What Is Spoliation of Evidence?

The parties to a pending or potential lawsuit are prohibited from destroying — intentionally or not — any documents or materials that may be relevant to the underlying legal action. When either party (the defendant or the plaintiff) destroys or attempts to destroy evidence in a business litigation matter, it is known as the spoliation of evidence.  

However, spoliation of evidence can occur in any type of legal case, not necessarily business litigation, and refers to both physical and electronic materials. Both the plaintiff and the defendant have an obligation to preserve evidence related to their legal matter. Spoliation of evidence can occur through an intentional act of destroying evidence (e.g., deleting a file or burning a document) or neglect that results in the destruction of the evidence.  

The Consequences of Spoliation

Depending on the applicable laws, the involved party can request various sanctions and remedies if spoliation of evidence has occurred. However, the evidence in question must be deemed relevant to the business litigation case for the judge to impose sanctions. Some of the common consequences of spoliation include: 

  • Holding the party accused of spoliation in contempt of legal order. 

  • Preventing the party accused of spoliation from raising any arguments in the case. 

  • Striking that party’s pleadings. 

  • Presuming that the destroyed evidence contained information that proves the other party’s claims or defenses. 

  • Imposing additional sanctions if deemed applicable and reasonable. 

In Florida, sanctions for spoliation of evidence are determined based on several factors, including the willfulness or bad faith of the party responsible for the loss of evidence, the extent of prejudice suffered by the other party, and what is required to cure the prejudice. Sanctions can range from adverse inference instructions to the harshest penalties like dismissal of claims or defenses, depending on the severity of the spoliation and its impact on the opposing party's ability to litigate the case. The courts in Florida have established that before imposing any sanctions for spoliation, it must be determined whether the evidence existed at one time, whether there was a duty to preserve the evidence, and whether the evidence was critical to an opposing party's ability to prove its case or a defenseUniversal Ins. Co. of N. Am. v. Sunset 102 Off. Park Condo. Ass'n, Inc., 2023 Fla. App. LEXIS 8450, Hall v. Ferguson Enters., 2021 Fla. Cir. LEXIS 7616, Boles v. Hoa Rest. Holder, 2022 Fla. Cir. LEXIS 327. If these criteria are met, the court may consider sanctions appropriate.

The nature of the sanction is heavily influenced by whether the spoliation was intentional or merely negligent. Intentional destruction of evidence may lead to severe sanctions such as default judgments or dismissal of claims, whereas negligent destruction might result in less severe sanctions like adverse inference instructionLandry v. Charlotte Motor Cars, LLC, 226 So. 3d 1053, Vega v. Cscs Int'l, 795 So. 2d 164, Adamson v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 325 So. 3d 887.

Several cases illustrate these principles. For instance, in situations where the spoliation was found to be intentional and prejudicial to the opposing party's case, courts have not hesitated to impose severe sanctionsHarrell v. Mayberry, 754 So. 2d 742, Sponco Mfg. v. Alcover, 656 So. 2d 629, North v. Altech Yachts, Inc., 815 So. 2d 643. Conversely, when the spoliation was due to negligence and the prejudice could be mitigated, courts have been more lenient, often opting for sanctions that aim to cure the prejudice without completely penalizing the spoliating partySeaway Biltmore, Inc. v. Abuchaibe, 348 So. 3d 23, Grand Hall Enter. Co. v. Mackoul, 780 So. 2d 275.

For a comprehensive understanding of how Florida courts handle spoliation of evidence and the corresponding sanctions, references to specific cases such as Landry v. Charlotte Motor Cars, LLC Landry v. Charlotte Motor Cars, LLC, 226 So. 3d 1053, Vega v. CSCS Int'l Vega v. Cscs Int'l, 795 So. 2d 164, and Adamson v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Adamson v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 325 So. 3d 887 provide detailed insights into the judicial reasoning and the factors considered in determining appropriate sanctions.

The Challenges in Spoliation of Evidence Cases

Spoliation of evidence cases may not always be straightforward. For example, how should you know whether evidence should be preserved for a “potential” lawsuit? If spoliation of evidence occurs before either party initiates legal action, the court will determine whether or not litigation was reasonably foreseeable.  

When spoliation of evidence occurs, when do courts penalize the party that had an obligation to preserve evidence but failed to do so? Generally, courts impose sanctions when the following is true: 

  • The party accused of spoliation of evidence had control over the evidence and the obligation to preserve it;  

  • The party was at least somewhat at fault for the destruction of the evidence; and 

  • The evidence in question was relevant to the opposing party’s claims or defenses.   

Courts have broad discretion in imposing sanctions for spoliation of evidence. Whether or not punishment is appropriate is determined on a case-by-case basis. Sanctions also depend on the accused party’s level of culpability: intention, negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and willfulness.  

How to Avoid Spoliation of Evidence in Business Litigation Cases

Our attorney at The Law Office of Stephen Barker often gets calls from clients saying that the opposing party in their business litigation case accuses them of spoliation of evidence. To avoid this from happening, here are some general tips to follow when you have a pending or potential business litigation case: 

  1. Work with an attorney to identify all relevant evidence in your case to ensure that you do not accidentally delete, throw away, or otherwise destroy the evidence that could be used or considered during the legal proceedings; and 

  1. Take all necessary steps to preserve the documents and materials relevant to your case, including physical evidence (e.g., documents) and electronic ones (files, emails, text messages, etc.).  

At The Law Office of Stephen Barker, we can help you identify and preserve all the evidence that may be relevant and valuable to your business litigation matter to ensure that you uphold your obligation to avoid the destruction of evidence. Our attorney also assists clients facing legal repercussions for intentional or unintentional spoliation of evidence.  

What to Do if You Believe Evidence Was Spoiled

If you believe the other party has destroyed evidence relevant to your business litigation case, you might want to consider filing a claim for spoliation of evidence. The claim must establish that: 

  1. There was a pending or potential lawsuit; 

  1. The other party had a duty to preserve evidence;  

  1. The evidence was destroyed;  

  1. The destruction of the evidence significantly impairs your ability to prove your claim; and  

  1. The spoliation of evidence caused you damages.  

If the evidence is still there but you worry that the other party may attempt to destroy or otherwise dispose of it, you might want to contact an attorney to help you draft and submit a spoliation letter to the opposing party. The letter requests the party to preserve the evidence in question and underscores their obligation to not destroy the relevant materials.  

Take Your Next Steps Forward

If you are concerned or have questions about the spoliation of evidence in any context, The Law Office of Stephen Barker can help. We can help you understand your best course of action if you believe something happened to evidence in your case or you are being accused of destroying or attempting to destroy evidence. Contact our office today to request a free consultation and discuss your legal options.