Brookshire Bros., Ltd. v. Aldridge, –S.W.3d–, 2014 WL 2994435 (Tex. July 3, 2014)

On July 3, the Supreme Court of Texas issued a significant opinion in clarifying appropriate sanctions for spoliation. The ruling removes discretion of trial judges to administer sanctions by only permitting jury instructions when the spoliation was intentional or deprived opposing party of the ability to present a claim or defense. As such, the court overturned a $1 million judgment and sent the case back for a retrial.

What started as a fairly straightforward “slip and fall” case in a Texas supermarket from 2004 has ended up shaping how spoliation sanctions are handed out in Texas due to 8 minutes of video. The plaintiff sought the footage from the in-store surveillance camera of his fall. The defendant produced the video which covered the time when the plaintiff entered the store until one minute after his fall. The rest of the footage from that day was overwritten after 30 days. The contention by the plaintiff was that it was irreparably deprived of evidence showing when the spill occurred and how long it had gone unattended in an effort to show the defendants’ culpability.

During the jury trial, the judge submitted a spoliation instruction to the jury which said the following:

“[i]f you find that Brookshire Brothers knew or reasonably should have known that such portions of the store video not preserved contained relevant evidence to the issues in this case, and its non-preservation has not been satisfactorily explained, then you are instructed that you may consider such evidence would have been unfavorable to Brookshire Brothers. (*4)

The jury found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded damages of $1,063,664.99, a judgment that was upheld on appeal.

The Supreme Court of Texas thought otherwise and overturned the lower court opinions. In the opinion, the majority opinion wrote:

“We hold that the trial court abused its discretion in submitting a spoliation instruction because there is no evidence that Brookshire Brothers intentionally concealed or destroyed the video in question or that Aldridge was deprived of any meaningful ability to present his claim to the jury at trial.”

The court wrote that spoliation instructions were only warranted when the party had

“the specific intent to conceal discoverable evidence and no lesser remedy will suffice to overcome the prejudice the spoliation caused” or when “a party negligently failed to preserve evidence and the nonspoliating party  has been irreparably deprived of meaningful opportunity to present a claim or defense.” (*19)

In this instance, the Supreme Court determined that neither of those standards were met and overturned the ruling because the spoliation was not deemed intentional nor did it deprive the plaintiff of its ability to present its claim.

With the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure working to update its remedies for spoliation, this Supreme Court of Texas ruling shows that state court systems are engaged in parallel discussions as to those at the federal level.

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