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Garnett v. Pugh

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

March 18, 2015

GARNETT
v.
PUGH ET AL., SECTION:

ORDER & REASONS

CARL J. BARBIER, District Judge.

Before the Court is Plaintiff Paulette Garnett's Motion for Spoliation of Evidence (Rec. Doc. 27) and Defendants Christopher Pugh, Protective Insurance Company, and Waggoners Trucking Company's opposition thereto. (Rec. Doc. 35) Having considered the motion and memoranda of the parties, the record, and the applicable law, the Court finds that the motion should be DENIED for the reasons set forth more fully below.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

This action arises out of a rear-end collision involving Plaintiff Paulette Garnett (Garnett) and a tractor-trailer combination owned by Defendant Waggoners Trucking, Inc. (Waggoners) on February 5, 2013. (Rec. Doc. 27-30, p. 1-2) The facts surrounding the rear-end collision are in dispute. At or around the time of the collision, Garnett was allegedly traveling in the left lane of U.S. 90B, also known as the "Westbank Expressway, " near its intersection with Westwood Drive in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. (Rec. Doc. 27-30, p. 2) At or around that same time, Garnett alleges that a Waggoners 2012 Kenworth tractor with flatbed trailer was traveling behind Garnett's vehicle. She further alleges that Christopher Pugh, a Waggoners employee, was operating the tractor-trailer and that his son, Jeremy Davis (Davis), who is also a Waggoners employee, rode with Pugh as his co-driver on the trip. Id . Garnett asserts that as she approached the intersection of Westwood Drive, observing a traffic signal change from green to yellow, she slowed her vehicle to stop, and the tractor-trailer operated by Pugh collided with the rear of her vehicle. Id . Although Garnett's deposition testimony reveals that she did admittedly change lanes prior to the collision, the parties dispute the specific time in which she changed lanes prior to slowing her vehicle. (Rec. Doc. 35, p. 2) While Garnett asserts that she did not believe her lane change to be of consequence in the rear end collision, Waggoners alleges that Garnett changed lanes and stopped abruptly in a way that left Pugh without enough time and distance to stop the tractor-trailer. (Rec. Doc. 27-30, p. 2-4)

On January 9, 2014, Garnett filed suit in the 24th Judicial District of Louisiana against Pugh, Waggoners, and Protective Insurance Company (Protective). (Rec. Doc. 1, p. 1) Thereafter, Protective removed the action to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 and 28 U.S.C. § 1441 on February 28, 2014. (Rec. Doc. 1) Garnett filed a Motion to Compel (Rec. Doc. 20), which was heard for oral argument on January 28, 2015, seeking production of various documents. The motion was opposed, and this Court ultimately granted the motion in part and denied the motion in part. (Rec. Doc. 26, p. 7) Garnett then filed the instant motion on February 21, 2015, seeking to have this Court (1) issue a judgment declaring that Defendants destroyed, mishandled, and altered critically important evidence relevant to the liability for the rear-end collision; (2) strike Defendants' responsive pleadings regarding liability as a penalty; (3) barring Defendants from disputing liability for the collision at trial; or (4) alternatively, allow adverse presumption jury charges for each piece of evidence Waggoners destroyed and altered. Defendants opposed the motion on March 3, 2015. (Rec. Doc. 35) On March 10, 2015, Garnett filed a reply. (Rec. Doc. 45)

PARTIES' ARGUMENTS

Garnett argues that Waggoners altered, mishandled, and destroyed critically important evidence by: (1) "losing" Davis's recorded statement, which was taken at the time of the accident by Victor Villanova (Villanova), a Custard Insurance Adjusters (CIA) employee investigating the accident; (2) failing to preserve, or destroying, the engine control module data by allowing the data to be overwritten when the tractor experienced "subsequent deceleration events" between the time of the accident and the time the data was extracted; (3) failing to preserve electronic data and hours of service documents that could help determine whether Pugh was fatigued at the time of the accident, including Pugh and Davis's subjective daily logs, fuel receipts, toll receipts, bills of lading, and other similar documents; and (4) failing to preserve identifiable Qualcomm systems data (tracking data) from the tractor(s) Pugh drove during the weeks and days prior to the accident.

As to the audio recording of Davis's statement taken immediately after the accident, Garnett alleges that this Court should reject any claims that Waggoners lost the recorded statement. Garnett asserts that Waggoners likely knew that the recorded statement was unfavorable to Pugh, so Waggoners demanded that Davis author a "biased/favorable" handwritten statement as a substitute for the recorded statement. Furthermore, Garnett questions why Villanova utilized "regular mail, " rather than a mail service that would have allowed for tracking of the delivery in transporting the recorded statement. Alternatively, Garnett asserts that even if the statement was lost, Waggoners' failure to copy the recorded statement or hire an independent third party to transcribe the recording "demonstrates Waggoners' willful disregard for competent evidence preservation and retention protocol(s)." In addition, the summary of the statement, prepared by Villanova the day after the accident, does not mitigate any prejudice suffered from not having the recorded statement.

Secondly, Garnett alleges that the Defendants failed to preserve, or destroyed, the relevant engine control module data (ECM). Because Defendants failed to download the ECM data in a reasonable amount of time, the data was overwritten when the tractor experienced "subsequent deceleration events" between the date of the accident and the date of the data extraction. In addition, Garnett is severely prejudiced by this missing data because it could have provided detailed and objective insight into the mechanics of the collision. Further, Garnett asserts that Defendants could have discharged their duty to preserve the data by notifying Garnett that they did not intend to download or otherwise preserve the data; therefore, Garnett could have then made arrangements to obtain the data.

Next, Garnett alleges that Defendants failed to preserve data and documents from the last week of January 2013 to the first week of February 2013 that could have been used to determine whether Pugh was fatigued at the time of the accident, including Pugh and Davis's subjective daily logs, fuel receipts, toll receipts, bills of lading, other similar documents, as well as identifiable QUALCOMM systems messaging and tracking data. Specifically, Garnett alleges that the tracking data was nondescript as to who drove the tractors during the weeks and days prior to the accident and that the tracking data was altered. Garnett contends that Davis's daily log originally indicated that he was in the tractor's sleeper berth at the time of the collision, but that information was later "lined through" and corrected to state that Davis was "off-duty."

Finally, Garnett asserts that for all these reasons, Defendants bear a high degree of fault for destroying, mishandling, and altering evidence. Based on the severe prejudice caused to Garnett by Defendants' failure to preserve critical evidence, Garnett asserts that "stripping Defendants of their liability defenses" is the most appropriate penalty. Alternatively, Garnett seeks adverse presumption jury charges as to every piece of evidence that Defendants destroyed, mishandled, and altered.

Defendants deny all of the allegations regarding spoliation and pray that this Court deny Garnett's Motion for Spoliation of Evidence. Further, Defendants assert that Garnett has mischaracterized or exaggerated facts relating to: (1) the State Trooper's finding of fault related to the accident, (2) Villanova's testimony relating to the accident and Garnett being "extracted" from the vehicle, (3) referral to a settlement of property damage claims, (4) Protective Insurance Company allegedly pressuring Waggoners to terminate Pugh's employment, (5) Waggoners' failure to preserve drivers' logs and trip envelope, (6) alleged false claims regarding documents produced after the hearing on the motion to compel, and (7) Defendants allegedly altering Davis's logs.

Defendants contend that they did not alter Davis's Driver log for February 5, 2013, but rather, Davis had edited the log prior to submitting it to Waggoners. Secondly, Defendants assert that they did not alter or destroy any Qualcomm data and have provided the relevant hours of service documents to Garnett. Defendants state that both Pugh and Davis's driver logs were submitted to Garnett, and that Garnett has all of the documents supporting Pugh's hours of service. Further, Defendants argue that the Qualcomm system could not have been used to enter the driver log hours, because the Waggoners units lacked this capability. Therefore, Defendants assert that since something that does not exist cannot be intentionally destroyed or altered, spoliation could not have occurred.

Additionally, Defendants deny that they altered or destroyed the audio tape of Jeremy Davis's statement. Neither Protective nor Waggoners' claim administrator nor Waggoners' safety department received the tape. Furthermore, Garnett is not prejudiced by this missing tape, ...


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