In a tragic Massachusetts personal injury case, a seven-year-old first grade student suffered traumatic brain damage after choking on meatballs served in the cafeteria of a public school. The student and his parents sued the manufacturer of the meatballs for negligence and breach of the warranty of merchantability arguing that the formula used for the meatballs made them more difficult to chew and break apart than other meatballs and that the size and texture of the meatballs presented a choking risk to children, thus making the meatballs unreasonably dangerous. Although the jury found the manufacturer negligent, they also determined that such negligence was not a substantial contributing factor to the student’s injuries and further that the meatball was not unreasonably dangerous.
Appeal for a Personal Injury Case in MA
In seeking a new trial on appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the trial court judge erred in denying their request for an adverse inference instruction against the manufacturer for alleged destruction of documentary evidence regarding the formula used for the meatballs at the time of the accident. The plaintiffs contended that as a result they did not have confirmation regarding the actual formula for the meatballs and the missing documents would have shown that the manufacturer changed the formula after the accident.
Evidence and The Doctrine of Spoliation
As discussed in previous issues of “Legal News” (July 2014, July 2016), the doctrine of spoliation permits the imposition of sanctions and remedies where a litigant negligently or intentionally loses or destroys evidence that the litigant knows or reasonably should know might be relevant to a possible legal action, even when the spoliation occurs before an action is commenced. The party seeking sanctions has the burden to produce evidence sufficient to establish certain preliminary facts including that a reasonable person in the litigant’s position would have realized, at the time of spoliation, the possible importance of the evidence to the resolution of the potential dispute.
In this case, the Appeals Court affirmed judgment in favor of the manufacturer finding that that the trial court judge did not abuse his discretion in declining to give a spoliation instruction because the plaintiffs offered no evidence of when the documents at issue went missing. In addition, the Appeals Court found that any prejudice to the plaintiffs that may have resulted from the refusal to give the instruction was remedied by the judge’s ruling allowing them to make use of the fact that the documents were missing.
The Appeals Court noted that the plaintiffs’ counsel made the most of the opportunity, referring to the loss of relevant evidence in his opening statement, questioning employees at length about the missing documents, and arguing that the employees were not credible because they lost the documents. The Appeals Court also noted that there was consistent testimony at trial that the manufacturer had made no changes to the formula since the accident, supported by two approval applications that the manufacturer submitted to the USDA that set out the same formula prior to and four years after the accident.
If you or a loved one were injured because of someone’s negligence, contact Attorney Allison now for a free consultation by calling 978-740-9433 or filling out our free consultation form. We look forward to talking to you about your claim.