Commercial Litigation and Arbitration

Defendants Who Were Aware of Allegedly Dangerous Condition But Had No Control over It Cannot be Subject to Adverse Inference for Failing to Document or Preserve Scene

From Willis v. Indian Harbor SS Co., 790 N.W.2d 177 (Minn. App. 2010):

On August 27, 2004, while working as a crewman of the vessel Joseph L. Block, Willis was injured on a dock in the Duluth harbor owned by respondent Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway Company (DM&IR). Willis was handling one of the Block's mooring lines used to secure the vessel when he slipped on the dock and fell. Willis testified that at the place where he fell the dock was covered by a slime of water and limestone, and that his knee hit both the dock and taconite pellets that were obscured by the milky limestone mixture. Willis eventually was diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis stemming from the injury to his knee.

Willis sued his employers, Indiana Steamship and Central Marine, under the Jones Act, claiming entitlement to maintenance and cure as well as additional compensation for his injuries under a negligence theory. Indiana Steamship impleaded DM&IR under the theory that DM&IR, as the dock owner, was liable due to the dangerous condition of the dock. Willis later amended the complaint to add DM&IR as a direct defendant, as well as to assert claims against the Block's charterer, ArcelorMittal USA, Inc., and the owner of the taconite manufacturing facility for which the cargo of the Block was destined, ArcelorMittal Minorca Mine, Inc. The district court ruled that all defendants except DM&IR were a unitary enterprise and that their fault as "vessel defendants" should be aggregated. ***

The foreman *** testified that no accident was reported on the day Willis slipped and fell on the dock. According to the foreman, had the accident been reported, DM&IR would have investigated the incident, taking statements and documenting the condition of the dock at the time of the accident. The accident occurred on a Friday and, although Central Marine Logistics was informed of the accident on that afternoon, DM&IR was not notified of the incident until the following Monday. In light of this late notice, the district court gave a negative-inference jury instruction as a sanction based on its interpretation of the doctrine of spoliation.***

Appellants [all defendants except DM&IR.] argue that, because they lacked control over the dock and its condition, they cannot be subject to a spoliation sanction for changes to the condition of the dock after the accident. There is nothing in the record that indicates that appellants had any control of the dock or when the dock was cleaned. The only party who had control over the dock or would have cleaned the dock, and thus destroyed the spill evidence, was DM&IR. The district court, however, concluded that a spoliation-based negative-inference instruction was appropriate despite the fact that appellants never had control over the dock or the condition related to the spill. In its posttrial order, the district court justified "the instruction on spoliation of evidence," stating "[t]he fact of [Willis's] fall, and the condition of the dock at the place and time, were within the exclusive knowledge, and therefore the exclusive control and possession, of the vessel Defendants" and because there was evidence that the vessel defendants failed to notify DM&IR of the injury when it occurred, DM&IR was "prejudiced because it could not inspect or document the location of Plaintiff's fall because the conditions of the dock regularly change."

Although we generally respect a district court's broad discretion regarding jury instructions and the determination of an appropriate sanction for spoliation, we review separately whether a spoliation sanction was authorized. *** Without citation to precedential caselaw, DM&IR argues that sanctions should be imposed regardless of control when a party knowingly allows evidence to dissipate. But our relevant caselaw involves only evidence that was under the control of the party sanctioned. ***Our caselaw has not extended the reach of a spoliation sanction to a party who has had no physical control over the evidence, and we decline to extend the reach of spoliation sanctions here. Because the record clearly shows that appellants never had actual control over the dock and because physical control is necessary for a spoliation sanction, we conclude that the sanction for spoliation was not authorized.

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