Clarifying Texas Spoliation Law
As the year comes to a close and a new year begins, we look back on the new statutes and case law that have affected the insurance industry. One such case is Brookshire Brothers v. Aldridge, a case involving spoliation, which the Texas Supreme Court decided on July 3, 2014. Spoliation is the intentional, reckless, or negligent withholding, hiding, altering, or destroying of evidence relevant to a legal proceeding. The Court explained that it granted review to the Brookshire Brothers case to bring much-needed clarity to the state’s spoliation jurisprudence.
On September 2, 2004, Jerry Aldridge slipped on a liquid substance and fell near a display table at a Brookshire Brothers grocery store in Jacksonville, Texas. Aldridge notified employees of the substance and his fall, but did not tell the store he was injured. Shortly after leaving the store, Aldridge’s pain increased and he went to an emergency room. Five days later Aldridge returned to the store to report his injuries and Brookshire Brothers prepared an incident report. The report stated that Aldridge slipped on grease that leaked out of a container where rotisserie chickens were cooked and packaged, which was located about fifteen feet from the area of the fall. The fall was captured by a surveillance camera, but the floor was obscured by a display table. Brookshire Brothers’ vice president of human resources and risk management decided to retain and copy eight minutes of video, starting just before Aldridge entered the store and concluding shortly after his fall. The camera automatically recorded over the footage of the day of the fall by early October.
Brookshire Brothers initially paid Aldridge’s medical expenses, but eventually stopped when it was determined Brookshire Brothers was going to deny responsibility. Aldridge sued Brookshire Brothers under a premises-liability theory. In August 2005, Aldridge’s attorney sent a request for approximately two-and-a-half hours of additional footage from the store cameras, but Brookshire Brothers was unable to comply with the request as the footage had been recorded over.
At trial, the court allowed the jury to hear evidence bearing on whether Brookshire Brothers spoliated the video. The court submitted an instruction to the jury allowing them to consider that the missing evidence would have been unfavorable to Brookshire Brothers. The jury determined that Brookshire Brothers’ negligence proximately caused Aldridge’s fall and awarded $1,063,664.99 in damages. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment.
The Texas Supreme Court determined that a spoliation analysis involves a two-step judicial process: (1) the trial court must determine, as a question of law, whether a party spoliated evidence, and (2) if spoliation occurred, the court must assess an appropriate remedy. Spoliation can only be found if a party had a duty to reasonably preserve evidence and the party intentionally or negligently breached that duty. Upon a finding of spoliation, a trial court has broad discretion to impose a remedy, but the remedy must be proportionate. Some remedies include an award of attorney’s fees, dismissal of the lawsuit, or the harsh remedy of a spoliation instruction, but the instruction is warranted only when the trial court finds that the spoliating party acted with the specific intent of concealing discoverable evidence. Spoliation findings and their related sanctions are to be determined outside the presence of the jury.
The Court determined that there was no evidence that Brookshire Brothers saved the amount of footage that it did in a purposeful effort to conceal relevant evidence and therefore the trial court abused its discretion by issuing the spoliation instruction. The Court reversed the court of appeals’ judgment and remanded the case to the trial court for a new trial.
While this decision not only clarifies spoliation under Texas law, it also limits trial judges’ ability to issue spoliation instructions. The Court explained that the instruction often ends litigation because it is too difficult a hurdle for the spoliator to overcome. This shift will help focus cases on the merits of the lawsuit, rather than any improper conduct that was allegedly committed by one of the parties during the course of the litigation process.