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French v. Perez

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

March 13, 2019


          MCFADDEN, P. J., RICKMAN and MARKLE, JJ.

          RICKMAN, JUDGE.

         In this personal injury case, Ronnie French appeals the trial court's order denying his pre-trial motion for sanctions for the spoliation of evidence. We granted French's application for interlocutory review but now affirm.

         The relevant facts are not in dispute. On December 10, 2014, French was a passenger in his sister's vehicle when it collided with a Toyota Corolla operated by Reyes Perez, owned by Perez's wife, and insured by State Farm Fire and Casualty Company. French sustained injuries.[1]

         On January 21, 2015, Perez's wife appointed State Farm as her attorney-in-fact to sign all papers and documents necessary to secure a Georgia title on the vehicle. On that day, State Farm took possession of the vehicle. Approximately two weeks later, French sent State Farm a notice to preserve any evidence related to the accident, including the damaged car itself and the black box therein. French stipulated that "by the time the letter went out, [Perez] didn't even own the vehicle." There is no evidence that the notice was sent to Perez or his wife, or received by them. Despite the request to preserve, State Farm sold the vehicle the following month.

         In November 2016, French filed suit against his sister and Perez alleging that they were both at fault for the collision; he did not name Perez's wife or State Farm as defendants. During the litigation, French dismissed his sister as a defendant, without prejudice. Shortly thereafter, French filed a motion for sanctions against Perez for spoliation arising out of loss of the vehicle. Following a hearing, the trial court denied the motion and a motion for reconsideration, but issued a certificate of immediate review, which this Court granted. For the following reasons, we affirm the trial court.

         Under OCGA § 9-11-37 (b) (2), "a party or an officer, director, or managing agent of a party" may be sanctioned for failure to provide discovery, including spoliation. See, e.g., Howard v. Alegria, 321 Ga.App. 178, 185 (2) (739 S.E.2d 95) (2013). "Spoliation refers to the destruction or failure to preserve evidence that is necessary to contemplated or pending litigation." (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Bouve & Mohr, LLC v. Banks, 274 Ga.App. 758, 762 (1) (618 S.E.2d 650) (2005). "[A] trial court has wide discretion in adjudicating spoliation issues, and such discretion will not be disturbed absent abuse." Phillips v. Harmon, 297 Ga. 386, 397 (II) (774 S.E.2d 596) (2015).

         1. First, "contemplation of potential liability is not notice of potential litigation." Kitchens v. Brusman, 303 Ga.App. 703, 707 (1) (a) (694 S.E.2d 667) (2010). Thus "the simple fact that someone is injured in an accident, without more, is not notice that the injured party is contemplating litigation sufficient to automatically trigger the rules of spoliation." Id. Here, French made no showing in the trial court that before State Farm acquired the vehicle, Perez "[knew] or reasonably should [have known] that the injured party, the plaintiff, [was] in fact contemplating litigation." Phillips, 297 Ga. at 396 (II). Indeed, French never even argued the point. He only argued that Perez was on notice as a result of the letter mailed to State Farm. But it is undisputed that the letter was not sent to Perez or his wife, and, even if it had been, they no longer had possession or control of the vehicle at the time. Thus, Perez can only be found responsible for spoliation if he can be held responsible for State Farm's disposition of the vehicle.

         2. "Sanctions for spoliation cannot be applied against a party who did not destroy the evidence when there is no evidence to show that the destroying party was acting at the behest of the party." Sheats v. Kroger Co., 336 Ga.App. 307, 311 (1) (b) (784 S.E.2d 442) (2016); see also Boswell v. Overhead Door Corp., 292 Ga.App. 234, 235-236 (664 S.E.2d 262) (2008) (spoliation presumption cannot be used against a party where nothing suggested that the entity that destroyed the evidence did so at the behest of the first party). In other words, sanctions are not warranted unless the third party "acted as the litigant's agent in destroying or failing to preserve the evidence." Bouve & Mohr, 274 Ga.App. at 762 (1). An agency relationship exists "wherever one person, expressly or by implication, authorizes another to act for him or subsequently ratifies the acts of another in his behalf." OCGA § 10-6-1. And, "[an] agent shall act within the authority granted to him, reasonably interpreted." OCGA § 10-6-21. Here, there is simply no evidence in the record that Perez maintained any authority over disposition of the vehicle after it was transferred to State Farm, and no evidence that he authorized State Farm to destroy the vehicle or that he ratified State Farm's destruction of the evidence.

         The dissent attempts to rely on a provision of the policy. But neither the actual insurance policy between the parties nor the declarations page is in the record. French filed an "exemplar" State Farm policy in connection with his motion for reconsideration in the trial court, Although Perez has not objected to this document as representing the terms of an agreement, the absence of the declarations page alone prohibits our use of the policy to resolve the issue before us. The exemplar policy states: "This policy contains all of the agreements between all named insureds who are shown on the Declarations Page and . . . [State Farm]". Thus, it is not even clear whether Perez is a named insured. In fact, he might be considered a "resident relative" of the named insured under the policy, if, in fact, the named insured is Perez's wife, the owner of the car. And the dissent has not determined whether a resident relative of the named insured is also in an agency relationship with State Farm.

         Furthermore, the dissent has not shown how the specific language of OCGA § 33-7-12 is not applicable. That Code section refers directly to the language that the dissent relies on:

Any provision in a liability policy of insurance which provides that the insurer shall have the right to compromise or settle claims of third persons against the insured without the consent of the insured shall be deemed to create, as between the insurer and the insured, the relationship of an independent contractor. . . .

(Emphasis supplied). That Code section was enacted in order to abrogate case law that held that such a clause in an insurance contract made the insurer the insured's agent for the purpose of effecting settlement of claims. See Brown v. Seaboard Lumber & Supply Co., 221 Ga. 35, 37 (142 S.E.2d 842) (1965).

         In an attempt to overcome his own failure to produce evidence of agency, French argues that Perez should be held to have spoliated the evidence because Perez provided no evidence that State Farm was not acting as his agent when it received the spoliation letter then disposed of the vehicle. But "where the existence of an agency is relied upon, the burden of proof rests with the party asserting the relationship." Carter v. Kim, 157 Ga.App. 418, 418 (277 S.E.2d 776) (1981); accord H ...

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