Fox & Farley, Attorneys at Law

Preserving Evidence in a Product Liability Case

Many car accidents are the result of defects in the manufacturing of a vehicle or one of its components, such as a tire. Tennessee law allows a victim to sue the manufacturer—and in some cases, the seller—of a defective product. But it is essential to follow the law in bringing a product liability claim, otherwise a court may be forced to dismiss your case before it can even go before a jury.

Spoliation of Evidence” Not Fatal to Defective Tire Claim

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently addressed a product liability claim involving allegedly defective tires. This appeal did not concern the merits of the plaintiff’s case, but rather whether the defendant was entitled to summary judgment. Among other things, the defendant argued the trial court should have thrown the plaintiff’s case out because she “destroyed” a critical piece of evidence.

The plaintiff owned a used car. In early 2008, she purchased two new rear tires from a dealer in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Just under three months later, while traveling near Jackson, Tennessee, the plaintiff “lost control” of the vehicle, which crashed into a guardrail, flipped over, and landed in a ditch. An eyewitness driving behind the plaintiff testified the plaintiff was “driving in a normal fashion” and “noticed something that was black and seeming to flap underneath the car.” This turned out to be pieces of the rear tires, which had apparently “blown out.”

The plaintiff suffered serious injuries. Her car was declared a total loss. A wrecker service removed the vehicle from the accident site. The plaintiff’s insurance company advised her to transfer to the vehicle to the wrecker service, which she did. The wrecker service subsequently destroyed the vehicle, including the two rear tires.

The plaintiff subsequently sued the dealer who sold her the tires. The dealer asked the trial judge to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint “as a sanction for the spoliation of evidence,” referring to the destruction of the allegedly defective tires. The trial court declined to do so and further rejected the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on other grounds. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the defendant’s appeal of these decisions.

The Supreme Court ended up affirming the trial court. There was no question the plaintiff did not intentionally destroy evidence; she merely acted upon the advice of her insurance company. But as the Supreme Court explained, “intentional misconduct is not a prerequisite for a trial court to impose sanctions for the spoliation of evidence.” Instead, the court must look at “all relevant circumstances” before deciding to impose sanctions. Here, in addition to the “absence of intentional misconduct,” the Court noted the destruction of the tires equally prejudiced the plaintiff and defendant, as neither side’s experts were able to examine the tires. Given this, and given there was additional evidence the tires were defective (such as the eyewitness testimony) the Supreme Court said it would not second-guess the trial court’s decision to let the case continue.

Get Advice from a Personal Injury Lawyer

The Supreme Court noted the plaintiff “had not yet hired an attorney” before she signed her car over to the wrecker service, and she therefore “did not realize that the tire needed to be preserved” as evidence. While this did not prove fatal to the plaintiff’s case in this instance, the Court’s decision should serve as a warning to the rest of us. If you are in a car accident, you should seek advice from a qualified Tennessee personal injury lawyer as soon as it practical. A personal injury lawyer can advise you on preserving evidence and following any applicable Tennessee law as it may relate to your product liability claim. Contact the offices of Fox & Farley, Attorneys at Law, in Knoxville or Clinton to speak with someone right away.

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