Brookshire Brothers, Ltd. v. Aldridge

In Brookshire Brothers, Ltd. v. Aldridge, 438 S.W.3d 9 (Tex. 2014), Aldridge slipped and fell about fifteen feet from a "Grab N Go" containing rotisserie chickens that were cooked and packaged in the store's deli. Id. at 15. At the time of the fall, he did not report it to store employees. However, about an hour and a half later, he went to the emergency room because of pain. Five days later, Aldridge returned to the store and reported his injuries. An incident report was prepared based on Aldridge's statement and the recollections of the assistant manager on duty at the time of the fall, which stated that Aldridge had slipped on grease on the floor near the "Grab N Go" area. Id. Aldridge's fall was captured by a surveillance camera mounted near the check-out counters. However, the floor where he fell was in the background and obscured by a display table. After Aldridge reported the fall, Robert Gilmer, Brookshire Brothers' Vice President of Human Resources and Risk Management, retained and copied about eight minutes of the surveillance footage, covering the time from when Aldridge entered the store to his fall. At the time of the fall, the surveillance video was recorded in a continuous loop that recorded over prior events after approximately thirty days. Id. Less than two weeks after the fall, Aldridge requested a copy of the video footage of the incident, but Gilmer testified he instructed the claims department not to provide the recording to Aldridge because he believed it would be improper. Aldridge was advised by letter shortly thereafter that the claims department could not provide him a copy. Within a few more weeks, the surveillance video (except the copy of the eight-minute segment) was presumably recorded over. Id. Approximately one year later, Aldridge's attorney requested an additional two and a half hours of footage from the video, and Brookshire Brothers was unable to comply because the footage had been recorded over at least ten months earlier. Id. Aldridge filed suit and argued that Brookshire Brothers' failure to preserve additional video footage amounted to spoliation and that the missing evidence was relevant to the key issue of whether the spill was on the floor long enough to give Brookshire Brothers a reasonable opportunity to discover it. Id. at 15-16. Aldridge asked for a spoliation jury instruction. The trial court, after allowing the jury to hear evidence bearing on whether Brookshire Brothers spoliated the video recording, submitted a spoliation instruction to the jury and permitted the jury to decide whether spoliation occurred. Id. at 16. At trial, Gilmer testified that he had instructed his manager trainee to save the portion of the video showing the fall and the five or six minutes before to identify Aldridge entering the store. He did not believe the rest of the video would be relevant, even though he understood that the key issue in a slip-and-fall case is frequently whether store employees knew or should have known there was something on the floor. He also testified that, when the decision was made to preserve the video, he did not know that there was going to be a lawsuit. Id. Applying the framework discussed above to the facts before it, the Texas Supreme Court held that both the admission of the spoliation evidence and the giving of a spoliation instruction were improper. Id. at 27. The Court assumed, without deciding, that Brookshire Brothers had breached its duty to reasonably preserve evidence by allowing the additional footage to be overwritten. Nevertheless, the Court held that the trial court abused its discretion in submitting a spoliation instruction because there was no evidence that Brookshire Brothers "did so with the requisite intent to conceal or destroy relevant evidence or that Aldridge was irreparably deprived of any meaningful ability to present his claim." Id. The Court pointed out that the testimony was that more footage was not retained because it was not thought relevant. Further, although Aldridge requested a copy of the video of the fall, he did not request additional footage. Although additional footage was requested after suit was filed a year later, the Court noted that there was no evidence that the footage was still available at the time of the additional request. Id. Further, there was no indication that the decision as to what footage to save was in any way based on what the additional footage would have shown. Therefore, the Court found "simply no evidence that Brookshire Bros. saved the amount of footage that it did in a purposeful effort to conceal relevant evidence." Id. at 28. The Supreme Court held that because a spoliation instruction is based on a presumption of wrongdoing rather than mere negligence, "a party must intentionally spoliate evidence in order for a spoliation instruction to constitute an appropriate remedy." The Supreme Court explained that "by 'intentional' spoliation, often referenced as 'bad faith' or 'willful' spoliation, we mean that the party acted with the subjective purpose of concealing or destroying discoverable evidence." Id. at 24. Accordingly, the Court held that "a trial court's finding of intentional spoliation . . . is a necessary predicate to the proper submission of a spoliation instruction to the jury." Id. at 25. The Supreme Court qualified its broader holding by providing a means for the trial court to give a spoliation instruction "if the act of spoliation, although merely negligent, so prejudices the nonspoliating party that it is irreparably deprived of having any meaningful ability to present a claim or defense." Id. at 25-26.