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Daniels v. United States

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Brunswick Division

January 22, 2015

LUCIOUS ALLEN DANIELS JR., Individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Lucious Allen Daniels Sr., Deceased, MARY A. DANIELS, individually as surviving spouse, LASHEBA MORTIMER, individually, and MARIKA DANIELS, individually, as surviving children of Lucious Allen Daniels Sr., Deceased, Plaintiffs,
v.
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, THE UNITED STATES ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS, and GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, Defendants

For Lucious Allen Daniels, Jr., Individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Lucious Allen Daniels, Sr., Deceased, Mary A. Daniels, Individually as surviving spouse, LaSheba Mortimer, Individually and as surviving children of Lucious Allen Daniels, Sr., Deceased, Markia Daniels, Individually and as surviving children of Lucious Allen Daniels, Sr., Deceased, Plaintiffs: Renee Y. Little, LEAD ATTORNEY, Carlock, Copeland & Stair, LLP, Atlanta, GA.

For The United States of America, Defendant: Sanjay S. Karnik, U.S. Attorney's Office - Savannah, Savannah, GA.

Page 1376

ORDER

LISA GODBEY WOOD, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

In this wrongful death suit, Plaintiffs claim their husband and father, Lucious Allen Daniels Sr., died when the county-owned truck he was driving collided with a gate maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Glynn County later disposed of the truck Mr. Daniels was driving-but not before giving Plaintiffs an

Page 1377

opportunity to have their accident reconstruction expert inspect it. Defendants, who were not notified of the truck's impending destruction, claim that Plaintiffs can be held responsible for the County's spoliation of critical evidence and that their complicity warrants dismissal or, alternatively, lesser sanctions. Dkt. no. 45. Because the Court finds that Plaintiffs' culpability in the destruction of the truck merits some sanctions while the prejudice against Defendants is not so high as to warrant dismissal, this Court GRANTS Defendants' motion in part. Plaintiffs' expert will not be able to offer expert testimony about his inspection of the truck at trial, but his photographs will be admissible.

I. Background

On October 5, 2012, decedent Lucious Allen Daniels Sr. was driving a 2000 Dodge Dakota pickup truck owned by Glynn County, his employer, to a public worksite. Dkt. no. 15, ¶ 25. The worksite could be secured by a gate that closed across Homer Wilson Parkway, on which decedent was driving. Id. However, on October 5, the gate was propped open with either a board or a stick. Id. at 27. As Mr. Daniels approached the gate on Homer Wilson Parkway, Plaintiffs allege " it suddenly and without warning began closing," and the arm of the gate struck the windshield of the truck. Id. at ¶ 28. The metal arm pierced the windshield, entered the cab, and stabbed Mr. Daniels, killing him instantly. Id.

Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit against the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the Georgia Department of Transportation (" GDOT" ), and the United States on July 15, 2013. Dkt. no. 1. The claims against the Army Corps of Engineers and GDOT were later dismissed by stipulation, Dkt. nos. 16, 23, and only the United States remains as a Defendant. In its Answer to Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint, Defendant United States lists comparative negligence as a defense to recovery. Dkt. no. 22, p. 2.

After initiating the lawsuit, Plaintiffs retained transportation accident reconstructionist James Sloan as an expert witness. Dkt. no. 45-1 (" Sloan Dep." ), 26:3-18. According to Sloan, it is important to make a physical inspection of a vehicle involved in an accident because " [i]t's helpful to be able to identify the extent--location [sic], extent, the magnitude of damage, [and] condition of the vehicle if that's an issue . . ." Id. at 13:21-14:9.

However, Sloan could not simply inspect the vehicle by way of Plaintiffs because they did not possess it. After the accident, the truck was in the Brunswick Police Department's custody. Sloan made his first request to see the truck to Sergeant Richard Meeks of the Brunswick Police Department on October 15 or 16, 2012. Id. at 26:14-27:8. Nevertheless, Sloan says " for whatever reason, the vehicle was retained by the county for some period of time before [he] could get to it." Id. at 28:15-18.

During that period, Glynn County sent two letters to Plaintiffs' counsel regarding the status of the truck. The first letter was sent on February 22, 2013. It informed Plaintiffs' counsel that the truck would soon be released from the Brunswick Police Department's custody and that the Glynn County Board of Commissioners had approved the truck's disposal. Dkt. no. 45-6. The letter went on to state:

I am writing to inform you of this action and to provide you with the opportunity to conduct an inspection of the vehicle prior to its disposal. Glynn County will retain the vehicle until March 22, 2013 to provide you an opportunity to conduct an inspection.
If you wish for the vehicle to be preserved subsequent to that date, you may arrange for ...

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