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Breaking Legal Developments

02-23-2004

Published by:
Peter A. Lynch, Esq.
of Cozen O'Connor
palynch@cozen.com
http://www.cozen.com

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:      This weekly newsletter covers:

  1. New York Court Of Appeals Rejects Third Party Spoliation Claim


(1) NEW YORK COURT OF APPEALS REJECTS THIRD PARTY SPOLIATION CLAIM

In Met Life v. Joe Basil, et al., (Feb. 24, 2004), the New York Court of Appeals addressed a claim for spoliation of evidence against a third party. The primary issue was whether New York State should recognize a cause of action for third-party negligent spoliation of evidence and impairment of a claim or defense as an independent tort. The court declined to recognize it on these facts.

In March 2000, a fire started in a 1999 Chevrolet Tahoe owned by defendant Joe Basil Chevrolet, Inc., and used, with permission, by Michael Basil. At the time of the fire, the vehicle was parked in the garage attached to the home of Faith and Michael Basil in Clarence, New York. The fire caused over $ 330,000 in property damage to their home. Plaintiff-appellant, MetLife, Michael Basil's homeowners' insurance carrier, paid the homeowners' claim.

Fire and sheriff investigators determined that the fire originated on the driver's side of the vehicle dashboard. After indemnifying Chevrolet, Royal (Chevrolet's insurance carrier) took possession of the vehicle, and a representative of Royal agreed in a telephone conversation to preserve the vehicle. Representatives of MetLife, defendant General Motors Corporation (which manufactured the vehicle), the Speaker Shop, Inc. (which installed a remote starting device in the dashboard) and Royal arranged for a joint inspection and testing of the vehicle in early November 2000 at the lot where Royal stored the vehicle. Before an inspection took place, Royal notified the parties that the vehicle had been disassembled and disposed of and that scientific analysis and examination were no longer possible.

As Michael Basil's subrogee, MetLife then commenced this action for money damages. MetLife brought the first three causes of action for negligence, breach of warranty and strict liability against Chevrolet, GMC and the Speaker Shop. The fourth cause of action, the sole cause at issue on this appeal, brought solely against Royal, alleged that "as a result of the negligence, carelessness and recklessness of [Royal], invaluable, necessary and important [evidence has been destroyed and lost, thereby irrevocably impairing [MetLife's] right to pursue successfully the defendants, Joe Basil Chevrolet, Inc., General Motors Corporation and Speaker Shop, Inc."

In lieu of answering, Royal moved to dismiss MetLife's complaint, as well as all cross claims interposed against it, arguing that MetLife failed to state a cognizable cause of action. MetLife cross-moved to dismiss Royal's affirmative defenses or for summary judgment as against defendants Royal and Chevrolet. Supreme Court granted Royal's motion to dismiss the complaint, holding that no action against a third party for spoliation of evidence exists in New York, and the Appellate Division affirmed. The court concluded that Supreme Court properly dismissed the complaint because no cause of action exists in New York for "third-party spoliation" of evidence/impairment of claim or defense, either under the principles of negligence law or as an independent tort.

On appeal MetLife argued that Royal had a duty to preserve the damaged vehicle and that Royal's failure to preserve the vehicle supports a cause of action for spoliation of evidence as an independent tort. Even if there were no duty to preserve the evidence, MetLife argued, Royal assumed that duty by agreeing in a telephone conversation that it would preserve the evidence and MetLife detrimentally relied on that promise. Defendants counter that a cause of action for spoliation should not be recognized as an independent tort or under a contract theory, that the burden of preserving evidence should be upon the party seeking its preservation and that no policy reason exists for making a third party liable for spoliation of evidence. There is no allegation in this case that the vehicle was deliberately destroyed in order to prevent an examination. Rather the allegation is that the evidence was destroyed "as a result of the negligence, carelessness and recklessness of the defendant."

DISCUSSION:
A cause of action for spoliation of evidence is a relatively recent phenomenon in the law.

Some states have recognized a cause of action for spoliation of evidence, others have not.

One traditional method of dealing with spoliation of evidence in New York has been where sanctions, including dismissal, have been imposed for a party's failure to disclose relevant evidence. The case at bar is substantially different from DiDomenico in that at no time did MetLife seek or obtain a court order to compel the preservation of the vehicle. As MetLife acknowledged, it could have sought pre-action disclosure or a temporary restraining order. It also could have bought the car from Royal, offered to pay the costs associated with preservation or commenced suit and issued a subpoena duces tecum to Royal. MetLife did none of these things.

In this case it was clear that Royal had no duty to preserve the vehicle. There was no dispute that Royal owned the vehicle. Moreover, no relationship existed between MetLife and Royal that would give rise to such a duty. Additionally, MetLife made no effort to preserve the evidence by court order or written agreement. Although MetLife verbally requested the preservation of the vehicle, it never placed that request in writing or volunteered to cover the costs associated with preservation. The burden of forcing a party to preserve when it has no notice of an impending lawsuit, and the difficulty of assessing damages militate against establishing a cause of action for spoliation in this case, where there was no duty, court order, contract or special relationship.

Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division was affirmed, with costs.

Mr. Lynch can be reached at Cozen and O'Connor, 501 West Broadway, Suite 1610, San Diego, California 92101, 800-782-3366 (voice), 619-234-7831 (fax), palynch@cozen.com (e-mail), http://www.cozen.com. Follow us on Twitter at @firesandrain.

Please direct comments, suggestions, stories, and other items to the author by e-mail at palynch@cozen.com

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