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Third-Party Spoliation of Evidence - Ore Tenus Review - Wanton Spoliation

Imperial Aluminum-Scottsboro, LLC v. Taylor, [Ms. 1171133, Sept. 20, 2019] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2019). The Court (Stewart, J.; and Parker, C.J., and Bolin and Wise, JJ., concur; Sellers, J., concurs in the result) affirms the Jackson Circuit Court’s judgment awarding compensatory damages on a third-party spoliation of evidence claim against Taylor’s former employer, Imperial, entered after a bench trial. The Court reverses the circuit court’s award of punitive damages predicated on wanton spoliation.

The Court first noted that a claim for third-party spoliation is premised on the Court’s long-recognized “‘doctrine that one who volunteers to act, though under no duty to do so, is thereafter charged with the duty of acting with due care and is liable for negligence in connection therewith.’” Ms. *17, quoting Dailey v. City of Birmingham, 378 So. 2d 728, 729 (Ala. 1979).

The Court noted that Imperial conceded that the spray gun was essential to its former employee Taylor’s products liability claim but disputed that the evidence substantiated that Imperial was aware of the potential for litigation when it disposed of the spray gun and that Taylor would have prevailed in the products liability action but for the spoliation. The Court affirmed on ore tenus review because “the trial court judge was in the unique position to observe the testimony of Imperial’s management, supervisors, and employees who had knowledge of or were involved directly with the efforts to preserve the Tradeworks 170 unit. It was within the province of the trial court judge as the fact finder to resolve any conflicts in the testimony and to judge the credibility of the witnesses. Hall v. Mazzone, 486 So. 2d 408, 410 (Ala. 1986) (‘The ore tenus rule is grounded upon the principle that when the trial court hears oral testimony, it has an opportunity to evaluate the demeanor and credibility of witnesses.’)” Ms. *22.

The Court reversed the award of punitive damages concluding that “[a]lthough evidence presented at trial would support a finding that Imperial’s employees and its attorney were not forthright with Taylor and his attorney regarding the location of the spray gun after litigation commenced, there is no evidence indicating that Imperial engaged in any intentional, willful, or wanton conduct in destroying, losing, or disposing of the spray gun.” Ms. *32-3.

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