The outcome of your Personal Injury (PI) case depends on presenting evidence that demonstrates willful or negligent acts by the defendant. These acts must have somehow led to your injury and loss of income/work potential. As personal injury lawyers, we have to stress that protecting that evidence is paramount. Intentional or unintentional acts could render sensitive evidence unusable. This spoliation, or tampering depending on the proceedings, constitutes a clear and present danger to your case; be sure you understand what spoliation means, what the consequences are, and what you can do to protect yourself if it happens.
What Is Spoliation of Evidence?
Spoliation of evidence occurs when parties in a case expose evidence to undue risk, either willfully or negligently, resulting in the materials being hidden, withheld, changed, fabricated, or destroyed.
What Are the Consequences?
Three types of consequences exist when spoliation is proven: criminal judgment, tort proceedings, or spoliation inference in an ongoing case. In states with laws criminalizing the act, violators face fines and potentially incarceration. Tort proceedings vary from state to state; some allow parties to file lawsuits against spoliators.
In the case of spoliation inference, the court permits information inferred from the destruction of evidence (e.g., the spoliator felt guilty, driving him or her to tamper with evidence) in civil or criminal proceedings, and allows the counsel to interpret the evidence with great prejudice against the party who caused the spoliation (e.g., the examiner may infer the evidence would reveal something negative regarding the spoliator).
Is Spoliation Different Than Tampering With Evidence?
The primary difference between these two legal definitions/proceedings lies in the criminal-law aspect of the latter. Tampering involves the altering, concealment, falsification, or destruction of evidence during an investigation. Tampering is generally considered when evidence is altered that may have led to a negative criminal outcome for the spoliator. The courts may consider the act as both spoliation and tampering, depending on the case.
Does Spoliation Happen in Personal Injury Proceedings?
The act of altering or destroying evidence can occur in any proceeding. Evidence for your case is paramount, regardless of the type of case, as it proves negligence or willful wrongdoing and demonstrates the extent of the harm caused to you by the defendant’s actions. In PI cases, this could be anything from recording over security footage that showed you falling as a result of a safety hazard at work, to simply misfiling an incident report when you were injured on the job.
How to Prevent Spoliation
There are consequences for committing spoliation, regardless of intent. You and your defense team should take steps to preserve all the evidence. If there is concern of spoliation from the defense, your personal injury attorney will likely send a spoliation letter, thus putting the defendant on notice and placing a legal obligation on him or her to protect evidence. If the defendant fails in their obligation to protect evidence, as spelled out in the letter, the defendant’s actions will likely lead to punishment.
If you believe something happened to evidence in your case, your best course of action is to consult with an expert in personal injury law with experience in spoliation or tampering.