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Case Blurb: Seeley; Court Denies Motion for Sanctions under “Elementary Fairness” Doctrine

Posted by rjbiii on December 17, 2009

Factual Background: Plaintiff, a worker at a Wal-Mart distribution center, was trained on and operated a conveyor belt machine manufactured by Defendant company. During the operation of the equipment, an accident occurred resulting in severe injuries to Plaintiff’s hand. Plaintiff brought this action for products liability and negligence.

Procedural History: Before the court was, inter alia, a motion by Defendants to impose sanctions on Plaintiff, evidently for the destruction of a part of the conveyor belt machine, known as a roller. Plaintiff’s hand was stuck in the machinery, and the roller was primarily responsible for this. The roller was either destroyed or missing, and Defendants asked the court to sanction Plaintiff for the (presumably destroyed) roller.

Sanctions for spoliation can be imposed for either intentional or negligent destruction of evidence. Hartford Fire Ins. Co. v. Regenerative Bldg. Constr. Inc., 271 A.D.2d 862, 863, 706 N.Y.S.2d 236 (N.Y. App. Div. 3d Dep’t 2000). In either case, a litigant must have been responsible for the destruction. Id. A court considers what is necessary for “‘elementary fairness'” when deciding to impose or reject sanctions. Id. (quoting Puccia v. Farley, 261 A.D.2d 83, 85, 699 N.Y.S.2d 576 (N.Y. App. Div. 3d Dep’t 1999). In Hartford Fire Ins., none of the parties knew the location of the unavailable evidence. Id. at 864. The record did not demonstrate who destroyed the evidence or when it was destroyed. Id. The court stated “[u]nder the circumstances . . . it cannot be presumed that plaintiff is the party responsible for the disappearance of such evidence, or, more importantly, that it was discarded by plaintiff in an effort to frustrate discovery.” Id. Accordingly, denial of the defendant’s motion for sanctions was upheld. Id.

Seeley presents a nearly identical situation to that in Hartford Fire Ins. She did not intentionally or negligently destroy the roller that caught her hand. The Wal-Mart facility possessed the roller at all times. The record is unclear as to who destroyed the roller and to when it was destroyed. Nothing suggests plaintiff discarded the roller to impede discovery. Thus, under Hartford Fire Ins., sanctions against Seeley are inappropriate as both situations present a lack of information on the actual destruction but some indication plaintiff was uninvolved. Defendant’s motion to dismiss all claims based on spoliation must be denied.

Seeley v. Logistex, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79549 at *12-13 (N.D.N.Y Sept. 3, 2009)(emphasis added)

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