Thursday, March 16, 2023

Judge Nealon of Lackawanna County Addresses Whether Summary Judgment is Appropriate Sanction for Alleged Spoliation

In the case of McClafferty v. Scranton Electric Heating, No. 2019-CIVIL-2216 (C.P. Lacka. Co. Aug. 5, 2023 Nealon, J.), the court addressed issues with regards to the alleged spoliation of evidence.

A carpenter instituted this personal injury action against a subcontractor after he was burned in a fire caused by a gas tank provided by the subcontractor at the work site, and the subcontractor joined the gas tank supplier as an Additional Defendant. 

The gas tank supplier filed a Motion for Summary Judgment seeking to dismiss the joinder action based upon the subcontractor’s alleged spoliation of evidence in failing to preserve the subject gas tank.

Judge Terrence R. Nealon
Lackawanna County

Judge Nealon confirmed that, in determining whether a sanction is warranted for the spoliation of evidence, the court shoulder consider: 
(1) the degree of fault of the party who altered or destroyed the evidence; 

(2) the degree of prejudice suffered by the opposing party; and 

(3) the availability of a lesser sanction that will protect the opposing party’s rights and defer future similar conduct. 

The court noted that the first prong, which addresses the fault of the spoliating party, requires consideration of the offending party’s duty or responsibility to preserve the relevant evidence or lack of any such duty. 

Judge Nealon also noted that the destruction of potentially relevant evidence determines whether and what type of sanction should be imposed, not whether spoliation occurred.

Since the subcontractor’s vice-president testified that it was “more than likely” that the gas tank “was returned” to the supplier after the fire, genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether the subcontractor could be characterized as the spoliator of the gas tank. 

The court noted that the entry of summary judgment is the most extreme sanction for spoliation, and, at a minimum, requires proof that the party actually altered or destroyed the evidence, or authorized or directed its destruction or alteration. 

Judge Nealon ultimately ruled that, although the presiding trial judge would later determine whether an adverse inference instruction under Pa. SSJI (Civ) §5.60 (5th Ed.) is warranted under the circumstances presented, at this stage of the matter, the entry of summary judgment as a spoliation sanction was found to be inappropriate by the court.

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.

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