Great Northern Ins. Co. v. Steamaster Co., Inc.
(Sup. Ct., New York Co., decided 11/17/2008)
Under New York law, the oft-mispronounced and oft-mispelled doctrine of spoliation of evidence provides that sanctions may be appropriate where a litigant intentionally or, under some circumstances, negligently, disposes of crucial items of evidence involved in an accident before an adversary has had an opportunity to inspect them. One such sanction is the dismissal of the action. However, the nature and extent of any penalties to be imposed lie in the Court’s discretion.
This case involved an allegedly defectively designed solenoid valve in an attic steambath generator that failed and caused water damage. Defendants Steamaster and Invensys moved to dismiss the action based on spoliation of evidence. The solenoid valve was still available and had been inspected by the parties. Piping leading to that valve, however, had been removed and cut up into small pieces.
In denying defendants' motion to dismiss, New York County Supreme Court Justice Michael Stallman held:
The evidence that was destroyed was the piping leading to the unit. Defendants claim that, without the pipe to test, they have been unduly prejudiced in their ability to mount an adequate defense. In Kirkland v New York City Housing Authority (236 AD2d 170 [lst Dept 1997]), the court distinguished between claims based on negligence and claims based on design defects. In that case, the court stated that, whereas the product in question itself would be the best and most conclusive evidence of any design defect, the existence of any such defect is a factual issue that can be proven by circumstantial evidence.
In the instant case, defendants are being sued for a design defect in the solenoid valve installed as part of a steam generator unit. The valve in question has not been destroyed, and has been examined by the parties. If defendants can prove, as they assert, that there was no design or manufacturing defect in the valve or the unit, they would prevail in the main action. Defendants are not required to prove an alternate theory of possible cause for the accident. The question as to whether or not the pipe was insulated, the thrust of this defense argument, may be assertable via evidence other than the actual pipe, such as eyewitness accounts and installation bills and receipts.* * * * *In the instant matter, it would be inappropriate to dismiss the main action, which is based on a design defect of a valve, because the valve has not been spoliated and has been inspected by the litigants.