Tractor-Trailer ECM Data Plays Part in Spoliation of Evidence

By: J. Scott Kirk and Damien A. Orato

03.26.08

Failing to take immediate action to protect electronic data following an accident not only can adversely impact a carrier’s defense but also can result in spoliation of evidence claims and sanctions by the court. Increasingly, plaintiffs are seeking sanctions against trucking companies based upon failure to preserve all evidence potentially relevant to the lawsuit.  Recent cases show that courts are now addressing the issue of sanctions based on the failure to preserve data from technological devices.

With the advances in technology, trucking companies can expect a rise in the number of spoliation claims concerning the Electronic Control Module (ECM), global positioning satellites (GPS), and other technological devices contained in tractor-trailers.  This article examines recent cases in which courts addressed the issue of sanctions based on the failure to preserve ECM and GPS information.

In Greyhound Lines, Inc. v. Wade, 485 F.3d 1032 (8th Cir. 2007), the defendants sought sanctions against the plaintiff bus company for failing to preserve the data on the ECM of the bus.  The case arose when the defendants’ truck rear-ended the plaintiff’s bus, which was traveling slowly at the time of the impact due to mechanical failure.  Id. at 1034.  The bus had an ECM that stored information, including speed, starts and stops, and the timing and type of mechanical failure.  Id. 

Soon after the accident, the plaintiff removed the ECM from the bus and retrieved some of the information it contained.  Id.  The plaintiff then sent the ECM to the engine manufacturer, which erased the information before the case was filed.  The defendants sought sanctions against the plaintiff for spoliation of evidence.  Id.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision refusing to impose sanctions against the plaintiff.  The Court relied upon two main factors in making its decision.  First, the Court stated that “The ultimate focus for imposing sanctions for spoliation of evidence is the intentional destruction of evidence  indicating a desire to suppress the truth.”  Id. at 1035.  Under these circumstances, the Court found that there was no showing that by sending the ECM to the manufacturer, the plaintiff intended to destroy evidence.  Id.

Second, the Court did not find that the defendants were prejudiced in not having access to all of the ECM data.  Id.  The Court also pointed out that the available ECM data identified the specific mechanical defect that slowed the bus, and several bus passengers testified how the bus acted before the collision.  Id.  Therefore, despite the plaintiff’s failure to preserve the ECM, the Court declined to award sanctions.

A Florida court had made a similar ruling a few years earlier in the case of Bulkmatic Transp. Co. v. Taylor, 860 So. 2d 436 (Fla. 1st DCA 2003), in which the defending trucking company was defending against a spoliation claim.  In Bulkmatic, the plaintiff sought a negative inference instruction as a sanction for Bulkmatic’s alleged failure to preserve ECM data.  Id. at 439.  The Court held that “because [plaintiff’s] ability to establish a prima facie case was not hindered by the lack of the black box data, if any such data existed,” sanctions were not warranted.  Id. at 449.  

Along the same lines as the decisions regarding ECM data discussed above, a federal court in Georgia recently denied sanctions in a case where the trucking company failed to preserve GPS data from its tractor.  Frey v. Gainey Transp. Servs., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 59316 (N.D. Ga. 2006).  In Frey, the plaintiff sought sanctions for the defendant trucking company’s failure to preserve the information from its QualComm satellite tracking system.  Id. at 13.  The QualComm system was capable of locating the tractor at any given time and providing a history of the vehicle’s position and communications between the driver and dispatcher.  Id. at 15.

The information was automatically deleted from the system after ninety days pursuant to the company’s normal course of business.  Id.  The plaintiff contended that the QualComm data was necessary to determine whether the trucking company’s driver had falsified his log.  Id. at 16.  The Court found that the QualComm satellite tracking data was not crucial to the plaintiff’s claims as there was other evidence from which she could argue that the trucking company’s driver was negligent.  Id. at 22-26.  Therefore, the Court refused to sanction the defendant for spoliation of evidence.

The cases discussed above demonstrate that, thus far, courts have been reluctant to order sanctions in the context of spoliation claims relating to technological devices contained in tractor-trailers, but are beginning to consider them as important factors.  Specifically, the courts in Greyhound, Bulkmatic, and Frey refused to award sanctions where the technological data was not essential or critical to the claims or defenses of the moving party.  See also Kenneth J. Allen & Bryan L. Bradley, Spoliation of Evidence, in Truck Accident Litigation (Laura Ruhl Genson & Anita M. Kerezman eds., American Bar Association 2007).  

Although these cases support a current high threshold for obtaining sanctions for failure to preserve technological data, the prudent course of action for trucking companies is to still preserve all such data following an accident.  As with any other type of spoliation of evidence claim, the trial court has much discretion in determining whether to award sanctions against a spoliator, and trends can change at any time.  Because of the discretion vested in the trial court, the failure to preserve technological data could potentially result in extremely harsh sanctions for the spoliator.