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VICTORIOUS PLAINTIFF ACHIEVES SPOILS AS A RESULT OF DEFENDANT’S EVIDENCE SPOLIATION

Plaintiff’s motion for default judgment and claim for attorney’s fees granted (Federal District Court for the Eastern District of New York).

Gutman v. Klein
Slip Copy, 2008 WL 4682208
E.D.N.Y.,2008.

Plaintiffs (“Gutman”) , A to Z Holding Corp., A to Z Capital Corp., Paz Franklin Company, and Washington Greene Associates initiated an action against defendants (Klein), Dina Klein, Rachel Brach, Rodney Capital Company, Toyv Corporation, Republic Capital Group, LLC, Atlas Furniture Manufacturing Corp., A to Z Holding Corp., A to Z Capital Corp., Paz Franklyn Company, Washington Greene Associates, and others on April 1, 2003. In the instant case Gutman claims that crucial litigation evidence (contained on several laptop computers) has been purposely destroyed by Klein. This spoliation, plaintiffs claim entitles them to default judgment, attorney’s fees and punitive damages. “A party bringing a spoliation claim must demonstrate (1) that the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; (2) that the [evidence was] destroyed with a culpable state of mind; and (3) that the destroyed evidence was relevant to the party's claim or defense such that a reasonable trier of fact could find that it would support that claim or defense.”

The court held that Klein was obligated to preserve the evidence from the moment they knew or should have known it was relevant to litigation. As to the state of mind element, the court reasoned that the negligence of Klein and its employees is enough to satisfy this requirement. Since the element of the claim is satisfied by Klein’s negligence the burden of proof would ordinarily shift to Gutman. However, the court held that the prejudiced party should not be held to too strict a standard of proving that the evidence is relevant to their claim. Prior to instituting the instant claim Gutman, informed both the court and Klein that the information deleted would be at issue. Ultimately, the court reasoned that the spoiled evidence was relevant to Gutman’s claim. Klein contested that the actions of the employee who deleted the evidence in question prevent Gutman from prevailing because the employee was not on notice. The court disagreed, “find[ing] it very difficult to believe it was wholly innocent.” The court ruled in favor of Gutman, granting the plaintiff’s default judgment and attorney’s fees; however, not punitive damages.

This case strengthens the rule of evidence preservation and the consequences of discovery abuse. Plaintiffs that fall victim of evidence spoliation, under circumstances such as these, may be entitled to default judgment rulings and attorney’s fees. “Deleter beware”.

Submitted by: Stefanie DeMario, Law Student at New York Law School

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