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Case Bulletin – West Virginia Supreme Court Rules That “Knowledge” is the Crux of The Issue in Claim of Intentional Spoliation of Evidence

In Williams v. Werner (W.Va. Supreme Court March 2, 2015), a tractor-trailer was involved in a one-vehicle accident as a result of hazardous winter weather conditions on 1-79 near Jane Lew, West Virginia. The tractor-trailer hit a guardrail, jackknifed, overturned and slid 30 feet down the embankment. A fire had started which eventually consumed the tractor-trailer, killing both the driver and the passenger. The Defendant, Werner Enterprises, is the nationwide freight transportation company, who employed the drivers and owned the subject trailer.

 

After the accident, 15 employees of the towing company loaded five dump and/or flatbed trailers with the remains of the involved tractor-trailer and they were hauled to the towing company’s garage. Within 48 hours after the accident, Werner’s assistant director of its fleet maintenance programs reviewed photographs of the trailer and determined that it was damaged beyond repair. As a result, he directed the towing company to dispose of the wreckage and the trailer was hauled to a local landfill. A month later, Werner was notified by a lawyer representing the Plaintiff that he had been hired to investigate the accident and was requesting preservation of the vehicle and all evidence related thereto.

 

The suit filed against Werner included allegations that it negligently or intentionally spoliated and disposed of evidence related to the subject accident with knowledge of the plaintiff’s request that such evidence be preserved.  On a motion for summary judgment, the circuit court, among other things, dismissed the claim that Werner had negligently spoliated evidence. The only claim that survived summary judgment was the allegation that Werner had intentionally spoliated evidence. Werner renewed their motion for summary judgment on this issue which was granted, and is the basis of this appeal.

 

The plaintiffs contended that there was substantial, uncontroverted evidence where the only reasonable conclusion is that Werner had actual knowledge of the plaintiffs’ claims requiring preservation of the tractor-trailer. The plaintiffs drew the court’s attention to the knowledge and investigation of the adjuster, the circumstances generally surrounding this case in that there were two deaths, and the well versed in-house legal department of Werner, and that Werner “knew” that numerous potential claims existed.

 

Werner, in response, argued that the plaintiffs’ claims were all claims of “constructive” knowledge and not “actual” knowledge. When the tractor-trailer was disposed of there were no pending or potential claims that required preservation. The investigation that was conducted by the adjuster and the police revealed that the accident was solely caused by snow and ice and the vehicle was therefore irrelevant to the outcome of plaintiffs’ claims.

 

The Court reviewed the law surrounding Hannah v. Heeter (W.Va. 2003)  and stated that there is no requirement of “actual” knowledge only that there is proof of “knowledge of the spoliator of the pending or potential civil action.” The Court then focused their discussion and decision on what constitutes knowledge. According to the facts before the Court, Werner did not have knowledge of the potential claims until they received the letter from the plaintiffs’ lawyer asking that the tractor-trailer be preserved. This was the first indication that Werner had an articulable awareness and understanding of a potential future suit and it came well after the trailer had been disposed of by Werner. Therefore, the Court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that in the 48 hours after the accident  Werner had knowledge of information that would lead it to inquire further and to investigate whether the plaintiffs had some potential claim based upon condition of the tractor trailer.  Werner produced evidence that it was its understanding that the accident likely occurred because of nothing more than snow and ice.

 

The Court found that there was no evidence of record to say that Werner was aware, informed, perceived, or had any knowledge that would lead it to the conclusion that plaintiffs had a pending or potential suit when it destroyed the trailer, and affirmed the summary judgment granted in Werner’s favor.