An Illinois Appellate Court recently ruled on spoliation issues in an Illinois product liability lawsuit. A spoliation claim can be brought if an entity, in this case Enterprise Leasing Company of Chicago, destroys or loses evidence that would be an important component of a potential lawsuit. Generally the court preserves an entity’s duty to preserve evidence; however, the trial court in Esther Brobbey, et al. v. Enterprise Leasing Company of Chicago, No. 1-08-3474, dismissed a spoliation claim against the car rental company.
When renting a 2003 Chevrolet Astro van from Enterprise, John Brobbey noted that the vehicle jerked and wobbled upon application of the brakes. He advised the agent of his findings before driving off with the vehicle and was told that the brakes were fine. However, two days later the brakes failed while Brobbey’s wife was driving the van, causing her to lose control. The vehicle rolled over several times and ended up landing in a ditch.
A little over a year after the Illinois auto accident, General Motors had issued a recall of its 2003 Chevrolet Astro vans regarding a suspension defect that could result in loss of control of the vehicle. Typically in an Illinois product liability case when a product defect is the potential cause of a party’s injuries the plaintiff needs to demonstrate that the specific product in question is defective. This is typically done by performing a thorough inspection of the product, which in this instance would be the Astro van. However, by the time the plaintiffs were aware of the recall the Astro van they were driving had already been destroyed, thus giving rise to the spoliation claim against Enterprise.
Enterprise attempted to defend the destruction of the vehicle by stating that following the Illinois rollover accident it had performed its own detailed investigation of the vehicle and determined that the brakes were not defective. Upon completion of the investigation Enterprise sent notice to the plaintiffs that if the company did not hear from them within four months that it would be selling the van for salvage. Thus the van was destroyed over three months before GM even released its Astro van recall.
The Illinois trial court granted summary judgment on plaintiff’s spoliation claim, citing that Enterprise did not have a duty to preserve the vehicle based on its lack of notice of the product defect from the manufacturer and that the rental company’s letter was sufficient to put the plaintiff’s on notice that action was needed on its part to preserve the van.
The Illinois Appellate Court disagreed with this interpretation and determined that there was no clear authority establishing that an entity could waive its duty to preserve evidence. Furthermore, the court found “imposing such a short time frame on plaintiffs to respond extremely troubling, especially given the severity of the injuries.” The court confirmed that a party has a duty to preserve evidence, regardless of whether it was aware of any potential defect or had notified an additional party of its intention to destroy the evidence.
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