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Wiedeman v. Canal Insurance Co.

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

June 9, 2017

GREGORY WIEDEMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
CANAL INSURANCE COMPANY, H&F TRANSFER, INC., AUTO-OWNERS INSURANCE COMPANY, WALTER PATRICK DORN, IV, WESCO INSURANCE COMPANY, and SALEM LEASING CORPORATION, d/b/a Salem Nationalease, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM S. DUFFEY, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Gregory Wiedeman's (“Plaintiff”) Renewed Motion for Sanctions Against Defendants H&F Transfer, Inc. and Salem Leasing Corporation [221] (“Renewed Sanctions Motion”).

         I. BACKGROUND

         This action arises from an August 8, 2014, collision (the “Collision”) between Plaintiff and Defendant Walter Patrick Dorn, IV, an employee of Defendant H&F Transfer, Inc. (“H&F”). The truck Dorn was driving was leased by H&F from Salem Leasing Corporation (“Salem”). Plaintiff claims H&F and Salem conspired to destroy, conceal, and falsify data from the electronic control module (“ECM”) of the truck involved in the Collision.

         On the day of the Collision, the investigating officer found Plaintiff at fault for causing the Collision and issued Plaintiff a citation for failure to yield to the red light. Plaintiff told the officer “he did not know what he was thinking running the red light.” ([223] at 2-3).

         On August 11, 2014, three days after the Collision, H&F returned the truck to Salem, after which H&F did not have possession, custody, or control of the truck or the ECM data contained in it. ([222] at 2-3). On August 14, 2014, Salem performed what it claims is an industry-standard preventative maintenance check on the truck. ([223] at 3). The purpose of the check is to identify any maintenance issues to ensure the truck can be safely operated before it is leased to the next customer. ([223] at 4). This maintenance check resulted in a reset and deletion of non-maintenance data from the truck's ECM. ([221] at 5). Salem claims it was not aware that the maintenance check procedure would reset non-maintenance data resident on the ECM. ([223] at 4).

         On August 18, 2014, H&F retained John Bethea to inspect the truck. On August 26, 2014, Mr. Bethea inspected the truck. In his July 27, 2016, expert report, Mr. Bethea opined that (1) no sudden deceleration was recorded by the ECM within the subject truck at the time of the incident and (2) it is not possible for any sudden deceleration data related to the subject incident to have been overwritten by subsequent sudden deceleration events because the incident was never captured by the ECM. ([223] at 4).

         On October 7, 2014, Plaintiff sent H&F a letter regarding preservation of evidence. Plaintiff did not send a similar letter to Salem. ([223] at 4).

         On August 11, 2016, Plaintiff filed his first Motion for Sanctions. At a September 2, 2016, hearing, the Court determined that it did not have sufficient information to rule on Plaintiff's motion, and it required H&F and Salem to recover and produce the laptop Mr. Bethea used during his inspection. The Court allowed Plaintiff to file a renewed sanctions motions. Two months later, Plaintiff received a hard drive from the laptop, which revealed that the truck's ECM had been accessed between the Collision and Mr. Bethea's inspection. The data shows that, prior to the reset, the ECM recorded three sudden deceleration events, one of which Plaintiff claims “likely was the incident in this case.” ([221] at 4).

         On April 5, 2017, Plaintiff filed his Renewed Sanctions Motion. H&F claims that the conduct of which Plaintiff complains took place after H&F transferred the truck to Salem, and that H&F thus cannot be held liable for any alleged spoliation. Salem claims that, because litigation was not reasonably foreseeable, it did not have a duty to preserve the ECM data at the time it accidentally reset the data during its maintenance check.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Legal Standard

         “Spoliation is the destruction or significant alteration of evidence, or the failure to preserve property for another's use as evidence in pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation.” Graff v. Baja Marine Corp., 310 F. App'x 298, 301 (11th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting West v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 167 F.3d 776, 779 (2d Cir. 1999)). A party seeking spoliation sanctions must prove that (1) the missing evidence existed at one time; (2) the defendant had a duty to preserve the evidence; and (3) the evidence was crucial to the plaintiff's prima facie case. Marshall v. Dentfirst, P.C., 313 F.R.D. 691, 694 (N.D.Ga. 2016) (citing In re Delta/AirTran Baggage Fee Antitrust Litig., 770 F.Supp.2d 1299, 1305 (N.D.Ga. 2011)). In considering the particular spoliation sanction to impose, “courts should consider the following factors: (1) prejudice to the non-spoiling party as a result of the destruction of evidence, (2) whether the prejudice can be cured, (3) practical importance of the evidence, (4) whether the spoiling party acted in good or bad faith, and (5) the potential for abuse of expert testimony about evidence not excluded.” In re Delta, 770 F.Supp.2d at 1305 (citing Flury v. Diamler Chrysler Corp., 427 F.3d 939, 945 (11th Cir. 2005)).

         Even if the Court finds spoliation, a sanction of default or an instruction to the jury to draw an adverse inference from the party's failure to preserve evidence is allowed “only when the absence of that evidence is predicated on bad faith.” Bashir v. Amtrak,119 F.3d 929, 931 (11th Cir. 1997). A showing of bad faith requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that a “party purposely loses or destroys relevant evidence.” Id. Mere negligence in destroying evidence is not sufficient to justify striking an answer. See Mann v. Taser Int'l, Inc.,588 F.3d 1291, 1310 (11th Cir. 2009). In determining whether to impose sanctions for spoliation, “[t]he court should weigh the degree of the spoliator's culpability against the prejudice to the opposing party.” Flury, 427 F.3d at 946. “The Eleventh Circuit has discussed and relied on Georgia state law in spoliation cases, even though federal law applies to the issue of spoliation sanctions, because ...


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