A Georgia judge struck a trucking company’s defense in a lawsuit after it was discovered that the trucking company had destroyed evidence. In the case captioned Alegria v. Howard and AAA Cooper Transportation, Inc., pending in the Superior Court of DeKalb County, Georgia, Judge Courtney L. Johnson ruled that AAA Cooper Transportation had denied the existence of evidence from a so-called black box recording device on one of its tractor trailers that was involved in a wreck, and that the company destroyed the recording device. Among other things, black box recording devices can show whether a truck driver was speeding when a crash occurred and whether the truck had problems with braking.
The legal term for the destruction of evidence is “spoliation.” It constitutes an obstruction of justice. The issue of spoliation comes up often in cases involving collisions with tractor trailers or trains. Typically, experienced trucking accident attorneys will send what is known as a spoliation letter to the company that owns or has control over the tractor trailer or train involved in a collision, instructing them to preserve evidence that is crucial to the case. Such evidence includes data or printouts from on-board recording devices and the recording devices themselves. In the lawsuit in question, Mr. Alegria’s attorneys had sent a spoliation letter to the trucking company’s risk manager thirteen days after the wreck. Judge Johnson ruled that the trucking company destroyed the black box recording device despite having received the spoliation letter.
The lawsuit arose when one of AAA Cooper Transportation’s tractor trailers collided with a pick-up truck that had spun out on a rain soaked road and was sitting in the middle of the highway. The driver of the pick-up alleged that he saw the tractor trailer coming, but could not get his door open in time to exit the pick-up truck. He rolled down his window and waived his arms frantically at the driver of the tractor trailer before the tractor trailer crashed into the driver side of his pick-up truck. As a result of the collision, the driver of the pickup truck, Mr. Alegria, suffered an amputation of his leg and a separated shoulder. Mr. Alegria then sued the trucking company, alleging that its driver was negligent in driving too fast for the existing conditions and in failing to avoid the collision.
After investigation, it was determined that AAA Cooper Transportation began repairs to its tractor within days of the collision when it anticipated or should have anticipated that litigation would require that the truck’s condition be preserved. The trucking company claimed that its truck did not have a black box. Mr. Alegria’s lawyers disputed the claim by presenting the testimony of an expert witness, who had done accident reconstruction work for AAA Cooper Transportation previously. That expert witness testified that the type of truck involved in the collision had monitoring equipment, such as a black box recording device, and that it was the trucking company’s practice to routinely download information from that device.
There was also an issue in the case regarding the existence of the tractor trailer driver’s logs, which are records showing how many hours the driver has been on duty and driven during a particular time period. Initially, the trucking company took the position that its driver’s logs had been destroyed. The company then changed its response, stating that the logs had been “inadvertently destroyed.” Subsequently, the trucking company produced the driver’s logs, stating that they had been “misplaced” but subsequently discovered. In view of the trucking company’s multiple, contradictory responses, the judge determined that the trucking company and its responses lacked credibility.
When disputes arise over evidentiary issues in a lawsuit, such as the alleged destruction of evidence, the trial court has the discretion to punish the offending party or wrongdoer. The sanctions or punishment can range from ordering the wrongdoer to pay the other side’s attorney’s fees and court costs related to bringing the matter before the court to the most severe penalty, striking the wrongdoer’s answer in the lawsuit. In support of her decision to issue the most severe penalty against the trucking company, Judge Johnson wrote, “The court does not believe that a company of such substantial size and means, in tandem with its learned counsel, could inadvertently make so many mistakes.” Judge Johnson concluded that the trucking company destroyed evidence “to gain advantage over the plaintiff and prevent the plaintiff from procuring potentially damaging evidence regarding the issue of negligence.” With its answer stricken, the trucking company is deemed at fault, and the only issue at trial will be the amount of damages to be awarded to Mr. Alegria. The trucking company stated that it intends to appeal the judge’s decision.