ALABAMA – Products Liability – Spoliation

The Supreme Court has reviewed the standards surrounding spoliation of evidence in the context of a products liability action.  Imperial Aluminum hired Taylor to carry out a painting job on its premises. Imperial gave Taylor a new paint sprayer to do the job. After a day’s work, when Taylor was in the process of cleaning the sprayer, it activated and injected paint and mineral spirits into his finger, which he lost despite medical intervention. His physicians informed him that his injury may cause ongoing issues, such as increasing his likelihood of developing arthritis in his right hand. Taylor decided to pursue a products liability claim against the manufacturer of the paint spray gun, and enlisted legal counsel to write to Imperial and request that it retain the spray gun in question. When it came time to inspect the spray gun for his products action, Taylor found that Imperial had disposed of it. Taylor dismissed his claim against the spray gun manufacturer, and filed suit against Imperial for spoliation.

The trial court concluded that Imperial had undertaken a duty to preserve the spray gun in light of Taylor’s counsel’s letter to Imperial. The court likewise concluded that Imperial had undertaken a duty to preserve the entire unit as evinced by Imperial’s original storage of the sprayer in a finished products room. The court determined that Imperial had not met its burden of showing Taylor would have lost his products case against the sprayer’s manufacturer had he had the sprayer, and awarded Taylor $250,000 in compensatory damages for negligent spoliation, as well as $150,000 in punitives for wantonness.

On appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed that one who volunteers to act has a duty of acting with due care, irrespective of his or her duty prior to the election to act. The Court laid out the elements of spoliation as actual knowledge of pending litigation; a voluntary undertaking, an agreement, or a specific request conferring a duty on defendant; and that the missing evidence be vital to plaintiff’s claim. The Court agreed with the trial court’s factual findings that Taylor’s attorney’s letter was a specific request, and Imperial’s response was to set out to preserve the spray gun, giving Imperial a duty to do so. Imperial likewise admitted that the spray gun was vital to Taylor’s products case. The Court further stated the trial court was in the best position to evaluate the testimony of Imperial’s agents and make factual findings, and could have correctly concluded that the three elements of spoliation were met, creating a rebuttable presumption that he would have recovered in his products-liability case. The burden then switched to defendant to rebut the presumption with evidence that plaintiff would not have prevailed. The Court found Imperial did not offer credible evidence that Taylor would not have prevailed. Evidence of Taylor’s contributory negligence was disputed, and the trial court was deemed the proper arbiter of its credibility, and the Court declined undergo appellate review and reweighing of disputed oral testimony. The Court further affirmed that Taylor had not assumed a risk because there was no evidence that Taylor knew of a defect in the gun before he was injured. However, the Supreme Court walked back the trial court’s award of punitive damages, finding no evidence of intentional, willful, or wanton conduct in destroying, losing, or disposing of the spray gun.

Imperial Aluminum-Scottsboro, LLC v. Taylor,   (September 20, 2019).


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