In, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority v. Tyler, the Court of Appeals overturned a civil jury verdict from 2018 that was in favor of the estate of Jaccolah Johnson for $25,000,000.0o based on an erroneous jury charge on spoliation. Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority v. Tyler, 2021 WL 2765952 (Ga. App. 2021). The trial related to an incident occurring on January 24, 2016, where Johnson fell down the steps of a MARTA Mobility bus. Although she was conscious and responsive at the scene after the accident, she suffered a serious brain bleed later that day which required surgery and left her in a vegetative state.
Johnson’s fall was caught on video by the mobility bus’s surveillance cameras. Id. While the video of her fall was preserved and played repeatedly at the trial, the video of Johnson boarding the bus prior to her fall was not preserved. Id. This evidence was material to the case because the Plaintiff’s argued at trial that MARTA employees were on notice that Johnson required assistance getting on and off the bus. Id. The video of her ascending the steps initially may have shown whether she had apparent trouble doing so, or whether her fall was completely unpredictable. Id.
At the charging conference after the trial, over MARTA’s objection, the court agreed to charge the jury with the following:
When a party has evidence that rejects or disproves a claim or charge made against the party, if he or she fails to produce it or having more certain and satisfactory evidence relies on that which is of a weaker and inferior nature, a presumption arises that the charge or claim is well founded. This presumption may be rebutted, however. The surveillance video presented captures Johnson’s tragic fall and the minutes leading up to it.
The jury found in favor of the Plaintiff and awarded her $25,000,000.00 and attributed 75% fault to MARTA and 25% fault to Ms. Johnson.
On appeal, MARTA argued that the trial court erred by giving the spoliation instruction when there had been no motion for sanctions or hearing by the trial court to determine whether spoliation of the evidence had occurred. Id. The Court of Appeals agreed with MARTA.
The Court noted that “spoliation of evidence is not a fact the jury is empowered to find by inference. Instead, whether spoliation occurred is a question of fact, to be decided by the court prior to trial.” Id, citing Hillman v. ALDI, Inc., 349 Ga. App. 432, 443-444 (3), 825 S.E.2d 870 (2019). This is crucial because the law is clear that sanctions for spoliation of evidence, such as a jury instruction as to the inference that follows, has been held to be “severe” and “generally reserved for intentional destruction of material evidence.” Id, citing Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. v. Koch, 303 ga. 336, 343 (2), 812 S.E.2d 256 (2018).
In this case, the Trial Court did not have an evidentiary hearing prior to the trial to determine whether spoliation of evidence occurred, nor did the trial court weigh the relevant factors regarding whether sanctions for such spoliation are appropriate in response. Id. Therefore, it was improper for the trial court to instruct the jury on spoliation. The Court rejected Johnson’s argument that the error was harmless because the charge was not specifically directed at either party in the case. Id. “Here, the charge was not an ‘abstract proposition’ and we cannot reasonably say that any rational juror would believe the inference applied equally to both parties when there was no suggestion that Appellee destroyed evidence.” Id.
As such, the Court of Appeals held that instructing the jury on the inferences to be drawn from the spoliation of evidence was reversible error and remanded the case for a new trial. Id.
The Court of Appeals decision in Tyler confirms the importance of getting a pre-trial ruling on the issue spoliation. Moreover, a practical pointer is to get the ruling in writing so that you know what you can argue or cannot argue to the jury.
You can access this article written by GM Associate, Paul Spann by clicking HERE.