Illinois Worker’s Claim Against Employer for Spoliation in Product Liability Claim Denied – Gerard v. ConAgra Foods, Inc.

An Illinois worker sued his employer for negligent spoliation of evidence, claiming that it had breached its duty to preserve evidence from a work site forklift accident in Gerard v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., No. 06 C 6163 (April 28, 2010). The plaintiff’s lawsuit was based on his claim that his employer’s negligence in preserving evidence from the accident prevented him from winning an Illinois product defect lawsuit against the forklift manufacturer. Based on its review of the case facts and relevant case law, the court held that plaintiff did not demonstrate that ConAgra Foods had breached its supposed duty to preserve evidence.

While working at one of ConAgra’s warehouses a forklift hit the plaintiff from behind. The force of the impact knocked the plaintiff to the ground, where the forklift ran over his right leg. The forklift in question was one of four machines that ConAgra had rented for use at its St. Charles, Illinois warehouse.

In order to make a viable Illinois product defect case against the forklift manufacturer the plaintiff needed to know which of the four forklifts had hit him. Without being sure which forklift was involved in the accident it would be difficult for the plaintiff to claim that the accident was caused by the forklift’s malfunction as a result of a product defect.

However, while ConAgra did make an investigation into the accident it never document which forklift was responsible. Furthermore, ConAgra had already returned at least on of the forklifts to the leasing company by the time the plaintiff began to investigate the workplace accident on his own. Therefore, the plaintiff was never able to discover which forklift ran him over and consequently was unable to prove his product defect case against the forklift manufacturer.

The plaintiff sought restitution from his employer on spoliation of evidence claims. In response, the defendant ConAgra filed a motion for summary judgment stating that given the relevant facts that it owed no duty the plaintiff on the spoliation issue.

Because Illinois does not recognize a tort of intentional spoilage of evidence, a theory of spoliation would fall under a type of negligence claim rather than an independent tort according to Boyd v. Travelers Insurance Co., 166 Ill.2d 188 (1995). Therefore, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant had a duty to preserve evidence and that it breached that duty.

In the case of Dardeen v. Kuehling, 213 Ill.2d 329 (2004), the Illinois Supreme Court established a two-prong test in order to decide whether a valid spoliation claim exists. The first is the “relationship prong”, under which there must be a duty that arises out of an agreement, statute, contract, voluntary undertaking, or special circumstances. The second is the “foreseeability prong” which establishes a duty if a reasonable person should have foreseen that the evidence at issue was material and relevant to a potential lawsuit.

The plaintiff attempted to establish the defendant’s duty by asserting that the facts showed it had assumed a duty to preserve the evidence when it voluntarily launched an investigation of the work site accident. The plaintiff further argued that when the defendant segregated the relevant forklift it demonstrated its knowledge that such information was important.

However, based on its review of the case facts the court found that there was nothing that suggested that ConAgra had ever identified which lift truck was involved. More specifically, there were no internal ConAgra records from or after the time of the accident that suggested the defendant had ever established the forklift’s identity.

The court further held that a duty to preserve evidence is not actually a duty to create evidence, citing Frye v. Medicare-Glaser Corp., 153 Ill.2d 26 (1992). A duty imposed by a voluntary undertaking applies only to the extent of the undertaking and not beyond. Therefore, ConAgra failure to include any documentation in its voluntary investigation of the incident does not constitute a breach of duty although it might represent a lack of diligence.

While some employers are required by OSHA or by good corporate practice to uphold a certain duty to employees, the warehouse did not fall under any such rules. In this case ConAgra was not required to conduct an extensive inquiry into the plaintiff’s accident. The court further noted that if the law did require a higher duty when a company voluntarily enters into an investigation that it could potentially discourage companies from conducting these investigations.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois product liability lawsuits for over 30 years, serving those areas in and around Cook County, including Wheeling, Wilmette, Lisle, and Wheaton.

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