Illinois Supreme Court Holds That Contractor Had No Duty to Preserve Evidence of Damaged I-Beam; Martin v. Keeley & Sons, Inc.

After the collapse of a bridge deck on Route 154 near Sparta, Ill., the general contractor, Keeley & Sons, used a jackhammer to break up the concrete I-beam that allegedly caused the accident.

Three workers were on the bridge deck when it collapsed. The issue in this case was whether there was a duty of the defendant, Keeley & Sons, to preserve evidence. The Illinois Supreme Court held there were insufficient facts to establish a duty on Keeley & Sons based on a voluntary undertaking.

The trial court in St. Clair County, Ill., entered an order granting summary judgment for Keeley & Sons finding that it had no duty to preserve the I-beam after this occurrence. The appellate court had reversed the summary judgment order, but the Supreme Court has now reversed the appellate court and affirmed the trial court’s decision.

On May 29, 2001, three workers, employed by Keeley, were on the reconstruction project of the bridge over the Maxwell Creek. While the handrail on the bridge was being installed, a concrete I-beam used to support the bridge deck where the plaintiffs were standing collapsed, injuring each of them. The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspected the accident site. However, the day after the incident, Keeley destroyed the I-beam.

A lawsuit was filed against Keeley, the manufacturer of the I-beam and the designer of the barring assembly that supported the I-beam. The claim against Keeley was based on negligent spoliation of evidence. Plaintiffs alleged that Keeley owed a duty to retain the I-beam as evidence in the potential litigation that followed, and that it breached its duty by destroying the beam. As a result of the now destroyed I-beam, plaintiffs were unable to prove their underlying claims against both the manufacturer of the I-beam and the designer.

In Illinois, the general rule is that there is no duty to preserve evidence. In the Supreme Court case of Boyd v. Travelers Insurance Co., 166 Ill.2d 188 (1995), a two-prong test must be met in order to establish an exception to that general no-duty rule.

Under the first or “relationship” prong, a plaintiff must show that an agreement, contract, statute, special circumstance or voluntary undertaking gave rise to a duty to preserve evidence on the part of the defendant.

The second or “foreseeability” prong of the test is that a plaintiff must show that the duty extends to the specific evidence at issue by demonstrating that “a reasonable person in the defendant’s position should have foreseen that the evidence was material to a potential civil action.” Boyd, 166 Ill.2d at 195.

There is no evidence in the record that Keeley voluntarily undertook to preserve the I-beam for the purpose of potential litigation.

Unlike other cases reviewed by the Supreme Court, there was no “special circumstance” here that might give rise to a duty to preserve evidence. The court mentioned that there has not been a precise definition of “special circumstances,” although it was hinted at facts giving rise to a duty in the case of Miller v. Gupta, 174 Ill.2d 120 (1996).

In this case, the court pointed out that unlike the Miller case, the plaintiff never contacted Keeley to request or preserve evidence. The Illinois Supreme Court stated that a defendant’s possession and control of the evidence, standing alone, is insufficient to establish a duty to preserve evidence. Something more other than possession and control is required. That would include a request by a plaintiff to preserve the evidence and/or the defendant’s segregation of the evidence for the plaintiff’s benefit. The general rule remains that a defendant has no duty to preserve evidence unless the plaintiff can show that an exception applies. Plaintiffs here failed to show that Keeley’s mere possession and control of the I-beam constituted special circumstances giving rise to a duty by Keeley to preserve the beam.

Accordingly, the court reversed the appellate court decision and affirmed the trial judge’s summary judgment order.

Terry Martin, et al. v. Keeley & Sons, Inc., 2012 IL 113270 (October 18, 2012).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling construction worker accidents, work injury cases, car accidents, nursing home abuse cases and truck accidents for individuals and families for more than 36 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas including, Evergreen Park, Highland Park, Mount Prospect, Norwood Park, Round Lake Beach, Park Ridge, Western Springs, Berwyn, Brookfield, Chicago (Lincoln Park), Hinsdale and Joliet, Ill.

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