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Ragan v. Stafford

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Texarkana Division

October 20, 2017

JAY RAGAN PLAINTIFF
v.
CLIFTON STAFFORD DEFENDANT

          ORDER

          Susan O. Hickey United States District Judge.

         Before the Court is Plaintiff Jay Ragan's Motion for Sanctions and Motion in Limine Regarding the Offering of Evidence of Repairs.[1] (ECF No. 22). Defendant Clifton Stafford filed a response. (ECF No. 28). Plaintiff filed a reply. (ECF No. 29). The Court finds the matter ripe for consideration.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On the morning of April 22, 2016, Plaintiff's vehicle struck a black cow in the roadway on Arkansas Highway 24, between DeQueen, Arkansas, and Horatio, Arkansas. It is undisputed that the cow belonged to Defendant and was pastured and fenced with other cattle on Defendant's nearby land. The cow escaped the pasture after breaking the top strand of a barbed-wire fence and pushing over a four-foot section of the fence. Following the accident, Plaintiff traveled by ambulance to the DeQueen Regional Medical Center. Soon after, Defendant repaired the broken section of fence by fixing and tightening the broken barbed-wire strand, putting in two new posts, and pulling up the rest of the knocked-over section of fence.

         On October 14, 2016, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit, alleging that he suffered personal injury and damages as a result of, inter alia, Defendant's negligent failure to have, maintain, inspect, and repair safe fencing in order to keep his cattle enclosed and off the nearby state highway. On October 25, 2016, Defendant filed an answer to the complaint. In November 2016, Defendant used a backhoe to remove the entire fence around his land and replaced it with a new fence. Defendant discarded the original, removed fence.

         On February 22, 2017, the parties filed their joint Rule 26(f) report, which contained no reference to Defendant removing the original fence.[2] On July 6, 2017, Defendant answered certain interrogatories inquiring about repairs and replacements to the fence by stating that he decided to replace the fence because it was “older.” (ECF No. 21-3). On July 19, 2017, Defendant testified in his deposition that he took the old fence down and built a new fence on his land.

         On August 9, 2017, Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the Court should grant summary judgment in his favor because Plaintiff has not presented any evidence that Defendant breached any duty of care with respect to the kind and quality of fence enclosing Defendant's property. On August 23, 2017, Plaintiff filed the instant motion.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff's motion for sanctions argues that Defendant committed spoliation of evidence by intentionally removing and replacing the fence at issue in this case, and by failing to keep or otherwise preserve the original fence. Accordingly, Plaintiff asks the Court to enter spoliation sanctions against Defendant. In his motion in limine, Plaintiff asks the Court to allow him to present evidence at trial regarding Defendant's immediate post-accident repairs to the fence and his subsequent total removal and replacement of the fence. The Court will address each of Plaintiff's motions in turn.

         A. Motion for Sanctions

         Plaintiff argues that Defendant committed spoliation of material evidence by intentionally removing and replacing the fence surrounding his land, and by failing to keep or otherwise preserve the original fence. Plaintiff states that the fence around Defendant's pasture was a key piece of evidence in this case because his negligence claim is based largely on Defendant's failure to have, maintain, and repair a sufficient enclosure for his livestock. Plaintiff states further that, because the fence removal occurred before the parties conducted any discovery, Plaintiff is now prejudiced because he cannot inspect and evaluate the fence, obtain expert opinions regarding the fence's condition at the time of the accident, or cross-examine Defendant about the fence. Accordingly, Plaintiff asks the Court to enter various spoliation sanctions against Defendant.

         Defendant argues in response that Plaintiff was not prejudiced by the removal of the fence because he has certain photographs of the fencing along the highway. Defendant also argues that Plaintiff had an adequate opportunity to inspect the fence and preserve it as evidence between the time of the accident and the disposal of the fence, and that Plaintiff regularly drove along the highway before and after the accident and could see the fence. Defendant argues further that the Court should deny the instant motion because nothing suggests that he removed and replaced the fence due to a “desire to suppress the truth.”

         “District courts have the inherent power to fashion an appropriate sanction for conduct which abuses the judicial process.” Gallagher v. Magner, 619 F.3d 823, 844 (8th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). Spoliation of evidence can constitute such an abuse. See Dillon v. Nissan Motor Co., 986 F.2d 263, 267 (8th Cir. 1993). Spoliation is “the intentional destruction of evidence and when it is established, [the] fact finder may draw inference that [the] evidence destroyed was unfavorable to [the] party responsible for its spoliation.” E*Trade Sec. LLC v. Deutsche Bank AG, 230 F.R.D. 582, 587 (D. Minn. 2005) (quoting Black's Law Dictionary 1401 (6th ed. 1990)) (alterations in original). Courts apply federal law to determine whether to impose sanctions for spoliation of evidence. Sherman v. Rinchem Co., 687 F.3d 996, 1006 (8th Cir. 2012). The imposition of discovery sanctions is a decision committed to the Court's discretion, but the scope of that discretion narrows as the severity of the sanction increases. Bergstrom v. Frascone, 744 F.3d 571, 576 (8th Cir. 2014).

         “For an adverse inference instruction for spoliation to be warranted, a district court is required to make two findings: (1) there must be a finding of intentional destruction indicating a desire to suppress the truth, and (2) there must be a finding of prejudice to the opposing party.” Lincoln Composites, Inc. v. Firetrace USA, LLC, 825 F.3d 453, 463 (8th Cir. 2016). The party seeking the sanction bears the burden of showing the requisite intent and prejudice. See Johnson v. Ready Mixed Concrete Co., 424 F.3d 806, 811 (8th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Court will now ...


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