Intentional Destruction of Evidence In California

The Supreme Court in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center v. Superior Court (1998) concluded that "no tort cause of action will lie against a party to litigation for the intentional destruction or suppression of evidence when the spoliation was or should have been discovered before the conclusion of the litigation." (Temple Community, supra, 20 Cal. 4th 464, 466.) In Temple Community, the Supreme Court concluded that no tort cause of action will lie for intentional third party spoliation of evidence. In reaching this conclusion, the court explained that "many of the considerations that led us in Cedars-Sinai to decline to recognize a tort cause of action for spoliation apply with equal weight when the spoliation is committed by a third party. The doubtful benefit of the proposed tort remedy is outweighed by the prospect of a spiral of litigation giving rise to verdicts based upon speculation. In addition, it would be anomalous for a nonparty to be liable in damages, including punitive damages, for conduct that would not give rise to tort liability if committed by a party." (Ibid.) The policy considerations that led the Supreme Court to refuse to recognize tort causes of action for both first party and third party intentional spoliation apply with equal force when the loss or destruction of evidence was the result of negligence. First, any injury from spoliation is speculative, requiring a two-step process of assessing the merits of the legal claim to which the evidence related and then the importance of the evidence to that claim. "It seems likely that in a substantial proportion of spoliation cases the fact of harm will be irreducibly uncertain. In such cases, even if the jury infers from the act of spoliation that the spoliated evidence was somehow unfavorable to the spoliator, there will typically be no way of telling what precisely the evidence would have shown and how much it would have weighed in the spoliation victim's favor. Without knowing the content and weight of the spoliated evidence, it would be impossible for the jury to meaningfully assess what role the missing evidence would have played in the determination of the underlying action. The jury could only speculate as to what the nature of the spoliated evidence was and what effect it might have had on the outcome of the underlying litigation." (Cedars-Sinai, supra, 18 Cal. 4th at pp. 13-14.) The Supreme Court was also concerned with the costs that a tort remedy would impose on defendants and the courts. Trying a spoliation claim jointly with the underlying action would have a significant potential for jury confusion and inconsistency. Pursuing a spoliation action in a separate action would require a " 'retrial within a trial.' " (Cedars-Sinai, supra, 18 Cal. 4th at p. 16.) Although Han has dismissed its claim against the tire manufacturer, proof adequate to show prospective economic loss would entail a very elaborate presentation, which is also very burdensome to the courts. (Ibid.) The concern that a tort remedy for spoliation of evidence will lead to a "spiral of litigation giving rise to verdicts based upon speculation" applies with equal force in cases where the third party negligently loses or destroys the evidence. ( Temple Community, supra, 20 Cal. 4th at p. 466.)