Because both civil and criminal court rulings depend almost exclusively on evidence, the Washington justice system can impose sanctions against a party that fails to preserve evidence under certain circumstances. Spoliation of evidence is a term used primarily in matters of civil litigation, sometimes arising when one party in a lawsuit suspects the opposing party of destroying evidence in the case, either purposefully or negligently. Spoliation does not apply if it occurs before the filing of a lawsuit, even if it could be reasonably assumed that a lawsuit lies ahead.
Preserving evidence in a civil dispute is a critical principle in litigation. The law requires parties on both sides of a lawsuit to preserve evidence in cases where they know the relevance of the evidence and a lawsuit has already been filed.
The types of evidence subject to accidental or purposeful spoilation have changed considerably in recent decades with the widespread use of electronic communication. Evidence spoliation today refers to any means of destroying the following:
Today’s courts are coming to terms with changes in the communication and documentation methods used today into primarily electronic storage and the new ways that parties involved in litigation can spoliate electronic evidence.
In Washington, the courts consider two important factors when determining if the spoliation of evidence was purposeful on the part of a defendant.
First, was the evidence important? For example, if there is an abundance of similar evidence, the spoliation of one piece of evidence isn’t critical to a case. This also typically indicates that the spoliation wasn’t purposeful if its loss has little to no impact on the case.
Second, was the offending party culpable in the action? In some cases, third parties may destroy evidence outside of the defendant’s control either purposefully or accidentally. Depending on the circumstances of the loss or destruction of evidence, the court may or may not impose sanctions. If you have questions about preserving evidence in your particular case, speak with an experienced injury attorney in Seattle.
The Court of Appeals in Washington holds that sanctioning a party for pre-lawsuit actions isn’t appropriate when the action occurred in good faith and not as a means to hide or destroy evidence. In essence, the law does not impose a duty on a person to preserve evidence before litigation begins even if impending litigation is foreseeable.
Only in cases of purposeful spoliation of evidence after the filing of a lawsuit can the court impose sanctions, including the following:
A default judgment for the opposing side is the harshest sanction available in civil court proceedings for parties who purposefully spoliate evidence. This potential sanction can be a significant legal weapon for the plaintiff’s side in tort cases, but plaintiffs must also remain mindful of their own duty to preserve evidence once they’ve filed a lawsuit in order to avoid spoliation claims from the defendant.
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