I remember learning about spoliation in law school. I never imagined how frequently these issues would affect my law practice. Particularly in truck accident cases where defendants seem to lose everything imaginable. Spoliation, for non-lawyers and new lawyers, is when the defendant purposefully or stupidly destroys evidence that it knows or should know would be relevant evidence at trial. Under Maryland law, there are many means to deter, penalize, and ameliorate the prejudicial effects of spoliation. The most common weapons, evidence sanctions, and/or corrective jury instructions, are available to Maryland trial judges as remedies to deal with acts of spoliation. These judges have wide discretion to deal with these parties that destroy evidence.
In Miller v. Montgomery County, 494 A.2d 761 (Md. App. 1985), the Maryland Court of Special Appeals explained that the destruction or alteration of evidence by a party to a lawsuit may give rise to inferences or presumptions unfavorable to the spoliator. What is the inference or presumption? That is up to the trial court who has wide discretion to fashion a remedy. The biggest factor is the intent or motivation of the destroying party. But make no mistake, notwithstanding Black’s Law Dictionary’s definition, a spoliation instruction in Maryland may be appropriate even if the party who lost or destroyed the evidence lacked malicious intent.
Maryland courts have not hesitated to fashion a remedy in the form of sanctions for spoliation of evidence. Klupt v. Krongard, 728 A.2d 727, 738 (Md. App. 1999). The ultimate sanction of dismissal or default when spoliation may be imposed when the spoliation involves: (1) a deliberate act of destruction; (2) discoverability of the evidence; (3) an intent to destroy the evidence; (4) occurrence of the act at a time after suit has been filed, or, if before, at a time when filing is fairly perceived as imminent.
You can learn more about these to key Maryland spoliation opinions here.
When Is the Duty to Preserve Evidence Created?
Maryland law creates no general duty to preserve documents, things, or information. But you believe you may become a party to a lawsuit, you are not permitted to destroy unique, relevant evidence that might be beneficial to the opposing party.
What Is the Jury Instruction for Spoliation in Maryland?
The jury instruction for spoliation of evidence is as follows:
The destruction of or the failure to preserve evidence by a party may give rise to an inference unfavorable to that party. If you find that the intent was to conceal the evidence, the destruction or failure to preserve must be inferred to indicate that the party believes that his or her case is weak and that he or she would not prevail if the evidence was preserved. If you find that the destruction or failure to preserve the evidence was negligent, you may, but are not required to, infer that the evidence, if preserved, would have been unfavorable to that party.
Is Spoliation an Independent Tort in Maryland?
Spoliation is not an independent tort in Maryland.
How Does Maryland Law Define Relevant Evidence?
Maryland Rule 5-401 defines “relevant evidence as evidence that has a “tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.