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Peter Chisdock and Sandra Chisdock, Wife and Husband v. Wanda Monk and Alabama Motor Express

August 25, 2011

PETER CHISDOCK AND SANDRA CHISDOCK, WIFE AND HUSBAND,
PLAINTIFFS
v.
WANDA MONK AND ALABAMA MOTOR EXPRESS, INC., DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Judge Munley)

MEMORANDUM

Before the court for disposition is the plaintiffs' motion for sanctions based upon Defendants' falsification of Interstate Commerce Commission logs and spoliation of critical evidence and the defendants' motion for partial summary judgment. The motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition.

Background

A traffic accident involving plaintiffs and defendants occurred on January 12, 2010. (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶ 5). While traveling south on Interstate 81 in a construction zone near Dupont, Pennsylvania, the plaintiffs' automobile was rear-ended by a tractor rig driven by Defendant Wanda Monk in the course and scope of her employment with Defendant Alabama Motor Express, Inc. (hereinafter "AME"). (Id. ¶¶ 8, 10, 13 - 16). Plaintiffs assert that they suffered severe physical injuries due to the accident. (Id. ¶ 17). They thus instituted the instant lawsuit seeking compensatory and punitive damages from the defendants.

On February 11, 2010, approximately one month after the January 12th accident, plaintiffs' counsel sent a certified letter to Defendant AME requesting that all information, including witness reports, regarding the accident be preserved. (Doc. 29-1, at 45 of 64, Pl. Ex. B). The letter warned the defendants that failure to preserve the evidence could lead to a motion for sanctions based upon spoliation of evidence. (Id.)

The parties proceeded through discovery, with the discovery period ending on April 15, 2010. (Doc. 15, Case Management Order). Plaintiffs then filed the instant motion alleging discovery abuses by the defendants. Plaintiffs allege that the defendants falsified logs kept in accordance with Interstate Commerce Commission rules (hereinafter "ICC logs") and destroyed and/or failed to retain other evidence, including the ECM (black box) from the tractor trailer involved in the accident and the handwritten post-accident statement written by Defendant Monk. Because of their actions with regard to these discovery matters plaintiffs seek the following:

1) That plaintiffs be deemed to have established a prima facie case for punitive damages against both defendants;

2) That defendants immediately provide financial net worth data;

3) That the issue of compensatory and punitive damages be presented to the jury;

4) That the defendants be fined $25,000.00 each;

5) That the jury be instructed with regard to falsification of evidence. Defendants oppose the motion for sanctions and have filed a motion for summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages.

Jurisdiction

This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to the diversity jurisdiction statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1332. The plaintiffs are citizens of Pennsylvania. Defendant Monk is a citizen of Tennessee and Defendant AME is a citizen of Alabama. (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶¶ 1 - 4). Because we are sitting in diversity, the substantive law of Pennsylvania shall apply to the instant case. Chamberlain v. Giampapa, 210 F.3d 154, 158 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78 (1938)).

Discussion

As noted above, plaintiffs have filed a motion for sanctions and the defendants have filed a motion for partial summary judgment. We will address each motion separately.

I. Plaintiffs' motion for sanctions

Plaintiffs' motion involves the alleged spoliation of evidence. Spoliation of evidence is the destruction of evidence relevant to a dispute. See In re Hechinger Inv. Co. of Del., Inc., 489 F.3d 568, 579 (3d Cir. 2007). The spoliation of evidence may lead to sanctions including "the outright dismissal of claims, the exclusion of countervailing evidence, or a jury instruction on the 'spoliation inference.'" Howell v. Maytag, 168 F.R.D. 502, 505 (M.D. Pa. 1996). Id. This "spoliation inference" is that the "destroyed evidence would have been unfavorable to the position of the offending party." Id. (quoting Schmid v. Milwaukee Elec. Tool Corp., 13 F.3d 76, 78 (3d Cir. 1994)).

In determining whether a party has engaged in spoliation a court examines: 1) whether the evidence was in the party's control; and 2) whether the party has actually suppressed or withheld the evidence. Brewer v. Quaker State Oil Refining Corp., 72 F.3d 326, 334 (3d Cir. 1995). Generally, the burden to establish spoliation of evidence is on the party asserting that spoliation has occurred. Byrnie v. Town of Cromwell Bd. of Educ., 243 F.3d 93, 107-08 (2d Cir. 2001).

Once spoliation has been established, courts should examine the following factors in deciding ...


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