Spoliation of Evidence In Medical Malpractice Cases In California
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center v. Superior Court (1998) involved a child who sustained injuries during birth allegedly caused by oxygen deprivation.
During discovery in the child's malpractice action against the hospital and others, the hospital was unable to locate certain medical records.
The plaintiff amended the complaint to add a cause of action for intentional spoliation against the hospital. After other proceedings not relevant to the issue on review, the Supreme Court granted review to decide whether a tort remedy existed for intentional spoliation of evidence by a party to the underlying litigation (first party spoliation). (Cedars-Sinai, supra, 18 Cal. 4th at p. 5.)
The Cedars-Sinai court framed the issue as whether to impose a legal duty on parties to a lawsuit not to destroy intentionally evidence relevant to the lawsuit and stated that the existence of a duty depended on policy considerations. ( Cedars-Sinai, supra, 18 Cal. 4th at p. 8, citing Dillon v. Legg (1968) 68 Cal. 2d 728, 734 69 Cal. Rptr. 72, 441 P.2d 912, 29 A.L.R.3d 1316.)
It noted in particular the policy against creating derivative tort remedies for litigation-related misconduct, other remedies available to deter or alleviate the effects of first party spoliation, and the uncertainty of the fact of harm arising from spoliation in many cases. (Cedars-Sinai, supra, 18 Cal. 4th at pp. 8-15.)
The court discussed the policy favoring the resolution of a dispute in a single lawsuit and the interest of "finality of adjudication" and cited with approval cases denying a tort remedy for other litigation-related misconduct such as perjury and falsification of evidence. (Cedars-Sinai, supra, 18 Cal. 4th at pp. 9-11.)
It stated that litigants should assume responsibility to expose misconduct during the underlying action and pursue nontort remedies in that action, such as an evidentiary inference that the missing evidence was adverse to the spoliating party (Evid. Code, 413) and discovery sanctions ( Code Civ. Proc., 2023). (Cedars-Sinai, supra, 18 Cal. 4th at pp. 11-13.)
It noted that intentional spoliation appears to be uncommon (id. at p. 13) and stated, " 'Endless litigation, in which nothing was ever finally determined, would be worse than occasional miscarriages of justice." ( Id. at p. 11, quoting Pico v. Cohn (1891) 91 Cal. 129, 133-134 27 P. 537.)
The court also emphasized the potential costs of meritless litigation and erroneous determinations of liability based on speculation as to what the destroyed evidence would have shown or how it would have affected the decision by the trier of fact in the underlying lawsuit, and of extraordinary measures to retain documents and other things solely because they may be relevant in some future litigation. (Cedar-Sinai, supra, 18 Cal. 4th at pp. 13-15.)
Finally, it noted the potential for jury confusion and inconsistent results if a spoliation cause of action were tried together with the underlying claims, and duplication of effort and potential for inconsistent results if it were tried in a separate lawsuit. (Id. at pp. 16-17.)
The Cedars-Sinai court strongly condemned the intentional destruction of evidence but concluded that the practice was uncommon, existing nontort remedies were adequate, the burdens and costs of allowing a tort remedy were substantial, and a tort remedy was unwarranted. (Cedars-Sinai, supra, 18 Cal. 4th at pp. 8, 13, 17.)
It held that when a party to a cause of action to which the evidence is relevant intentionally destroys or suppresses evidence and the victim knows or reasonably should know of the spoliation before the decision on the merits in the underlying action, there is no tort remedy for intentional spoliation. (Id. at pp. 17-18.)
Although the Cedars-Sinai court did not address the issue of whether a tort remedy existed for negligent spoliation of evidence, it expressly denied that it had recognized a spoliation tort remedy in Williams v. State of California (1983) 34 Cal. 3d 18 192 Cal. Rptr. 233, 664 P.2d 137 (Cedars-Sinai, supra, 18 Cal. 4th at pp. 5-6, fn. 5), a case that had been cited in prior appellate court opinions for the proposition that the Supreme Court recognized a cause of action for negligent spoliation (see, e.g., Smith v. Superior Court (1984) 151 Cal. App. 3d 491, 496-497 198 Cal. Rptr. 829, disapproved in Cedars-Sinai, supra, 18 Cal. 4th at p. 18, fn. 4; Velasco v. Commercial Bldg. Maintenance Co. (1985) 169 Cal. App. 3d 874, 876-877 215 Cal. Rptr. 504).