Massachusetts Appeals Court Analyzes Spoliation of Evidence in Negligence Action Involving Severe Injuries

The doctrine of spoliation is a legal concept developed through case law that allows trial court judges to sanction a litigant who intentionally or negligently loses or destroys evidence that they knew or should have reasonably known may be relevant to a possible Massachusetts personal injury case. This doctrine may be applied even when the spoliation occurs prior to the filing of a civil action. An appellate court in Massachusetts looked at spoliation in a negligence action stemming from a choking incident at a public school.

The case was filed after a young school child choked on meatballs served at the cafeteria in a public school.  He began choking at the end of his lunch period, and several attempts using the Heimlich maneuver and back blows proved to be unsuccessful. The food was eventually dislodged by professional emergency staff, but the child had been without oxygen for too long and sustained catastrophic brain injuries. The parents filed suit against the school and the company that manufactured the meatball.

The company that made and sold meatballs to the public school system utilized a protein solution to meet the required level of protein. The injured child’s parents asserted the use of this solution caused the meatball to have an unreasonably dangerous texture, creating a choking hazard. An expert hired by the plaintiffs recreated the meatball using the formula provided by the defendant company through interrogatory answers. At trial, the expert opined the meatball was harder to break apart and chew than others without this protein solution. The plaintiffs’ expert stated the size and texture of this meatball presented a choking risk to children.

The plaintiffs filed motions in limine for sanctions against the company, asserting the company destroyed laboratory notebooks and records from 2004, two years before the choking incident, related to the development of the formula for the meatball. The motion also asserted spoliation regarding product development and product testing from the same year. The judge withheld ruling on the motions until he heard evidence at trial, but he ultimately refused to give an instruction on spoliation. The judge did allow the plaintiffs to reference these missing documents in closing arguments. The jury returned a verdict finding the company to be negligent, but this negligence was not a substantial contributing factor to the injuries suffered. The plaintiffs appealed.

The appellate court concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its refusal to give a spoliation instruction. The doctrine of spoliation does not extend to any “fault free destruction or loss of physical evidence.” The litigant seeking sanctions has the burden to present enough evidence to establish how a reasonable person in the spoliator’s position would be able to realize the possible importance of the evidence prior to its destruction. The court found the trial judge did not errr by declining to give a spoliation instruction. The plaintiffs did not provide proof of when the evidence went missing and therefore could not show how the defendant corporation knew or should have known it could be needed for the present litigation. The court felt that even if there was prejudice, it was corrected by their ability to point out the missing documents in their closing argument.

The court additionally reviewed the summary judgment dismissing the case against the city. The plaintiffs alleged the city was negligent by choosing a dangerous food product and and failing to adequately supervise students. The court determined the summary judgment was appropriate because there was no evidence presented from which a jury could find the city knew or should have known about the dangers of the meatball, which was part of a USDA-approved product. They also did not show how the cafeteria workers could have acted any differently because they took immediate action themselves and called 911. The judgment in favor of the defendants was affirmed.

Personal injury litigation is an intense, complicated process, and it helps to have experienced counsel at your side. Call the Massachusetts attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan for a free, confidential consultation at 508.822.6600.

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