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A Legal Perspective - Spoliation of Evidence

July 23, 2020

When it comes to putting together a strong maritime case for court, one of the most important elements is good, solid evidence. If the matter involves an accident, relevant evidence could include witness statements, deck splinters, failed mechanical equipment, and in more recent years, cellphone records or digital navigation logs. The examination of such evidence sometimes involves experts in with backgrounds in materials science, metallurgy, marine coatings, and other specialties. Forensic investigators can sometimes use a streak of antifouling paint or other evidence to tie a vessel to an accident scene.
Just as it’s important to get hold of good evidence, it’s important for that evidence to be properly preserved until such time that jurors will see it at trial. The problem is that evidence sometimes deteriorates, undergoes other changes, is tampered with, is innocently compromised by human handling, or worse, flat out disappears. If a court finds that the unavailability of evidence is due to destroying or hiding it, there is a legal term for it. It’s called “spoliation.”
Spoliation of evidence can carry consequences in terms of sanctions. Sanctions are a form of legal punishment imposed by a court when a party has acted improperly. This took place in a lawsuit involving an accident with a vessel carrying passengers. The steering gear failed, resulting in the boat crashing into the shoreline and injuring passengers.
The tie rod had separated from the port tiller arm. In the aftermath of the accident, the vessel owners had thrown away the damaged parts. The passengers were not given the opportunity to see the vessel and gear. The passengers argued that this undermined their rights to conduct an investigation that could have provided information to challenge the findings of the owner’s technical expert. They asserted that this added to their litigation costs.
Seven of the injured passengers required medical attention. In the ensuing legal proceedings, it was argued that because of this spoliation of evidence, the damaged vessel and its steering system were unavailable for inspection by the expert retained by the passengers.
The passengers’ expert was forced to rely on photographs taken by government investigators and the expert retained by the vessel operator. This placed the passengers at a disadvantage because they were not able to physically see the damaged steering system and test the vessel operator expert’s opinion about the bent steering ram and the cause of tie rod’s disconnection.
Attorneys for the passengers filed motions for sanctions against the defendants. A motion is basically a legal action where one party asks the court to do something, such as dismissing a case or excluding evidence. The court granted the passengers’ motion for sanctions. It also ordered that opinions and reports of the vessel operator’s expert be excluded from evidence.
In popular culture, destruction of evidence is sometimes depicted with humor, where a cartoon could show corporate executives standing atop mountains of incriminating documents and shoveling them into the hopper of an industrial paper shredder. But in real life, deliberate destruction of evidence is taken seriously by courts.
Since many maritime disputes arising on navigable waters find their way into federal court, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure could become relevant. And these rules reflect electronic evidence, since we now live in a digital world. According to the rules, if electronically stored information that should have been preserved is lost because a party failed to take reasonable steps to preserve it, the court could presume the lost information was unfavorable to the party. It could also instruct for dismissing the action or entering a default judgment. There are more details to it, but this is the basic essence of Federal Rule 37.
Sometimes, destruction of evidence could even bring criminal charges. The U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Coast Guard have prosecuted ship’s officers for destruction of logbooks for oily waste discharges. These situations arose where engine room personnel failed to produce records evidencing proper management of ship’s oily waste streams.
The basic premise here is that courts could be understanding if evidence is innocently lost or mishandled. But if evidence is made to disappear through deliberate action or misconduct, a court might not be very tolerant, particularly if there are important things at stake.

Ref: Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 37

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