Lawsuits are only as good as the evidence. And this is especially true for personal injury lawsuits, which could rely on extensive physical and financial evidence in order to be successful. But what happens if evidence -- like photographs, handwritten notes, medical records, or receipts -- goes missing? Or what if you threw something away that you didn't realize could even be evidence in an injury lawsuit?
The loss or destruction of evidence is called spoliation, and courts may handle it differently depending on the type of case, the evidence involved, and how it was lost. Here's what you need to know.
Spoliation normally happens when a defendant destroys, hides, or refuses to produce evidence they know will be harmful in a lawsuit. Two main elements of spoliation are (1) whether the evidence was under the party's control, and (2) whether the party knew or should've known the evidence would be relevant to future litigation.
For example, let's say someone slips and falls in a grocery store. If they're injured they may request security camera footage of the area where they slipped, for a time period before and after the accident. This camera footage is definitely is under the grocery store's control and if there's an incident in the store they should know it could contain evidence relevant to a slip-and-fall accident. The grocery store will normally be asked to provide that evidence to the injured person, their attorney, or the court, and could be in trouble if it doesn't.
If a party, like the grocery store above, can't or won't produce requested evidence due to spoliation, they could be facing a range of legal penalties. In some states, intentional spoliation (like purposefully destroying the security footage from the grocery store) is a criminal offense and could result in fines or incarceration. In other jurisdictions, the court could advise the jury to infer that the party who destroyed the evidence had a "consciousness of guilt" or that the supposed evidence should be viewed as unfavorable to the spoliator.
If you've been involved in an accident, you should do your best to preserve any evidence. If you've been accused of causing an injury (or even think you might be) you should make sure not to destroy any evidence that relates to the incident. And if you've been injured, you should put the party responsible on notice as soon as possible so that they don't accidentally destroy evidence.
Issues of spoliation are best left to experienced personal injury attorneys. Contact one today.