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Spoliation of Evidence Does Not Automatically Entitle a Plaintiff to an Adverse Inference

December 12, 2019

ROBERT B. SPAWN reports on a recent unpublished decision from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.

 

In a recent New Jersey case, a Plaintiff-Tenant was sitting in a chair in the basement laundry room of her apartment building (owned by a Defendant-Landlord) for about thirty minutes before a leg on the chair gave way, causing Plaintiff to sustain personal injuries to her shoulder, arm, neck, back, and knees.  The chair was part of a set of chairs that were connected to each other, and Plaintiff was sitting on an end chair.  Plaintiff described the leg of the subject chair as having “collapsed,” and asserts that she became caught between the chair she was sitting on and the chair connected to it on her right, after which she fell to the floor. 

 

On August 6, 2014, Plaintiff’s attorney contacted the Landlord and requested that it preserve the chair.  At some point thereafter, however, the parties realized that the subject chair was no longer in the laundry room, and the Landlord was eventually forced to concede that the chair had gone missing while in its possession.

 

Then, on June 29, 2016, Plaintiff filed a complaint against the Landlord for negligence in maintaining the premises.  During discovery, an employee of the Landlord testified at his deposition that he cleaned the chairs and table in the laundry room every morning.  The employee also testified that he did not notice any issues or receive any complaints about the chair prior to Plaintiff’s incident.  Plaintiff similarly stated in her deposition that she did not notice any issues with the chair prior to the leg giving way.

 

Following the close of discovery, in March of 2018, the Landlord moved for summary judgment. Plaintiff opposed the motion, and argued that the Landlord’s loss or disposal of the chair would allow for an adverse inference under spoliation of evidence rules.  If the court accepted Plaintiff’s argument, then a jury would have been permitted to assume that the chair was defective even in the absence of direct evidence.

 

Unfortunately for Plaintiff, however, the trial court found that, while Plaintiff had presented a sufficient argument for spoliation, the destruction of the chair was only relevant to a product liability claim against the manufacturer of the chair.  Indeed, the Landlord was a property owner, and, as such, Plaintiff was required to produce evidence that the Landlord either actually or constructively knew or should have known that the chair placed on the premises was defective.  As the record was void of any evidence in that respect, the trial court ultimately concluded that, even granting all favorable factual inferences to Plaintiff, a reasonable jury could not have possibly found in her favor.

 

The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court, and further explained that the Landlord, as an owner of a business property, only had duties to “discover and eliminate dangerous conditions, to maintain the premises in a safe condition, and to avoid creating conditions that would render the premises unsafe.”  None of those duties were breached in this instance, because, as stated above, Plaintiff could not demonstrate that the Landlord had notice of a dangerous condition relating to the subject chair, nor could she demonstrate that the Landlord (as opposed to the chair manufacturer) had the ability to discover any unsafe condition prior to Plaintiff’s incident.  To be sure, no one - including Plaintiff - had ever noticed any problems with the chair prior to Plaintiff’s fall.  Accordingly, the Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s ruling on summary judgment, and Plaintiff’s case was dismissed.

 

Please contact Robert B. Spawn if you have any questions or need assistance in connection with thi