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Court of Appeals of Georgia Denies Action for Third-party Spoliation of Evidence as Unnecessary

October 11, 2017

            On May 11, 2013, Kenneth Phillips was involved in an auto accident in which his vehicle flipped.  The accident was caused by a tire blowout.  As a result of the accident, Phillips suffered severe injuries that required extensive medical treatment.  The vehicle was deemed to be a total loss.  Phillips held an auto insurance policy with Owners Insurance Company (“Owners”).  Phillips and Owners agreed to a settlement where Phillips would transfer title to the vehicle to Owners, and in exchange, Owners would settle Phillips’ property damage claim. 

 

            Nearly a year and a half later, Owners sold the vehicle so as to not incur further storage charges.  Phillips later brought suit against the tire manufacturer, and the parties reached a settlement on the claim for a portion of Phillips' medical expenses from the accident. The tire manufacturer claimed that the ultimate sale of the vehicle foreclosed Phillips' opportunity to recover his full medical damages from the tire manufacturer.  Subsequently, Phillips brought suit against Owners, alleging third-party spoliation of evidence, breach of contract, promissory estoppel, and negligence.  Kenneth Phillips et al. v. Owners Insurance Company, 802 S.E.2d 420 (Ga. Ct. App. 2017).

 

            In his suit, Phillips acknowledged precedent had refused to recognize an independent cause of action for third-party spoliation of evidence.  Owens v. Amer. Refuse Sys., Inc., 244 Ga. App. 780, 781 (2000).  However, Phillips urged the court to take a “fresh look at the issue.”  Phillips made the request to the court because a number of states have recognized causes of action for third-party spoliation of evidence; however, neither a statute nor any ruling of the Georgia Supreme Court has established third-party negligent spoliation of evidence as an independent tort in Georgia.  The Court of Appeals of Georgia held that Phillips had other “potential avenues of recovering from Owners under existing law” that did not require a ruling on this issue.  Owners 802 S.E.2d at 425. 

 

            Specifically, the court noted that a cause of action for third-party spoliation of evidence is unnecessary because, a “vigilant litigant already has traditional means of securing evidence available.”  Owens, 244 Ga. App. at 781 (2). The court reasoned, every litigant is afforded a means of enforcement, such as a court sanction or damages for breach of contract, through which a plaintiff in Phillips' position could recover from a third party if the evidence is not preserved.  In the present case, Phillips failed to show why these traditional remedies would be inadequate under his circumstances.  Phillips argued that evidence lost or destroyed would have only speculative damages which would be considerably difficult to prove, and a tort claim for negligent spoliation would avoid speculation.  However, the court disagreed, holding that proving damages almost always includes valuation problems regardless of whether a duty to preserve the evidence arose from a court order, contract, promise, or the law of tort.  Owners 802 S.E.2d at 425.  Therefore, the court granted summary judgment for Owners on Phillips’ third-party spoliation claim.

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