Spoliation Claims Are Not a Recreational Vehicle to Be Raised at Any Time in a Case
LaFerrera v. Camping World RV Sales of Birmingham, No. 15-00473 (N.D. Ala. Mar. 21, 2016).
Relying on state law, the court rejected a request for spoliation sanctions included as part of a motion for summary judgment where the requesting party did not prove that the allegedly spoliating party acted in bad faith or had a duty to preserve specific evidence.
In October 2013, the plaintiffs, the LaFerreras, traded in to defendant Camping World a motor home made by defendant Thor Motor Coach, to purchase what they thought was a new Tuscany motor home. Thor provided $5,000 toward the trade, in exchange for the LaFerreras’ release of any claims related to the first purchase. On the new Tuscany, Thor’s one-year limited warranty provided only for repair or replacement of any defects. Camping World’s sales agreement clearly said that the Tuscany was sold “AS IS,” with no warranties.
The LaFerreras immediately experienced problems with the Tuscany: it periodically lost power, the washing machine and dishwasher would not drain, the windshield was cracked and leaked, the heat and A/C repeatedly failed, and it vibrated due to poor alignment. The LaFerreras returned the Tuscany for repairs on four dates between November 2013 to April 2014. Each time, the defendants claimed that all problems were fixed, but some problems persisted.
In June 2014, the LaFerreras signed a release “from any and all contract, warranty,” or other claims “arising prior” to that date. In exchange, Thor extended their original warranty for an additional year. The problems continued; at one point, Thor sent the Tuscany to a service center where the dash control panel was replaced. Ultimately, the LaFerreras sold the Tuscany in October 2014.
In March 2015, the LaFerreras sued Thor and Camping World for misrepresentation, concealment of defects, and breach of warranties. Despite never filing a motion to compel the defendants to produce documents—including e-mails, the replaced dash control panel, and a service history file—the LaFerreras claimed that the defendants spoliated evidence in their motion for summary judgment and asked the court for adverse inferences and to preclude certain evidence.
The court noted that in a diversity suit, “federal law governs the imposition of spoliation sanctions.” However, without federal case law guidelines in the Eleventh Circuit, “courts have relied on state law for guidance.” The court observed that in Alabama, an adverse inference from spoliation arises only when the “absence of that evidence is predicated on bad faith,” not “mere negligence.”
Here, the LaFerreras asserted that an e-mail were not produced that would have established that “they were fraudulently induced” into signing the 2014 release. However, the e-mail did not relate to their purchase or repair of the mobile home. Moreover, the court found that another substantially similar e-mail was produced and cast doubt on the fact that a separate message existed. More importantly, the plaintiffs did not prove that there was “any evidence of bad faith or intent to destroy” any e-mails. Under state law, without bad faith, the court refused their request for an adverse inference.
As to the dash control panel, the court found that the LaFerreras did not show that “Thor or Camping World had custody or control” of it, “or that they had a duty to preserve it.” Thor produced the requested folder of information in response to the LaFerreras’ motion, making that argument moot. Finally, because the “sealed documents” requested by the LaFerreras related to claims arising before the June 2014 release, the court found them irrelevant. In short, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ spoliation claim.
Parties that have a spoliation claim should not wait until the summary judgment stage to raise it. The proper way to handle it, as the court noted in this case, is to file a motion to compel. The court also observed that “a good faith attempt to resolve these problems would have obviated court involvement” on at least one of the spoliation issues raised.