Obtaining Sanctions for Destruction of Evidence in Jail Death Cases

“Spoliation” is the destruction of evidence, or the failure to preserve evidence, for pending or future litigation. When a defendant destroys or fails to preserve evidence in a pending case, that defendant can face serious consequences. And the principles surrounding spoliation don’t necessarily depending on the presence of existing litigation. Rather, the obligation to preserve evidence can attach even before formal litigation if a lawsuit is “reasonably forseeable.”

At it’s core, spoliation of evidence is a form of theft. And in federal cases involving the wrongful death of jail inmates, the destruction of evidence by a county, city or correctional healthcare company can result in severe legal penalties. This includes the ultimate penalty — a default judgment.

The lawyers at Budge & Heipt have successfully obtained default judgments for spoliation of evidence in two recent cases — both involving in-custody deaths from jail medical neglect.

One such case involved the death of a teenager in a jail in Eastern Washington. The case concerned a national corporate provider of correctional healthcare which we alleged was legally responsible for the teen’s death by neglecting his serious medical needs over the course of days, leading to his eventual demise from dehydration in a cell where he had no access to water. During the case, we learned that the company in question destroyed vast amounts of potentially discoverable emails between and among company employees. The timing, breadth and depth of the email purge was astonishing. And the destroyed emails were critical, for they could have obtained important information about jail understaffing, substandard practices, patterns of failure to following medical policies, and lack of training or other topics relevant to proving the company’s liability for the inmate’s death.

After learning of the spoliation, we filed a motion for sanctions — seeking a default judgment against the companies involved under Rule 37(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Our briefing was extensive and contained copious citations to the facts and circumstances surrounding the destruction of this important evidence. Interested readers can review our primary briefing here: Estate of Moreno: Plaintiffs’ Motion for default judgment for spoliation of evidence.

The federal district court considered the motion at length, and agreed with our position. In a thorough order, the court found that that the correctional healthcare company “destroyed broad swaths of emails” and that it was “reasonable to infer . . . that Defendants purposefully destroyed evidence to avoid their litigation obligations.” The court further found that “the breath of the destruction [was] stunning” and may have significantly hindered the case. As a result, the court ordered terminating sanctions against the company — issuing a default judgment that resulted in a liability finding in favor of our client. The court’s 27-page order can be found here: Estate of Moreno: Order Granting Motion for Default Judgment. The case later resulted in a multi-million-dollar settlement which was one of the largest settlements ever for the death of a Washington state jail inmate.

Two years later, we again succeeded in obtaining a default judgment for the spoliation of evidence in a jail wrongful death case. The case involved the medical neglect death of Cindy Hill, a 55-year old woman who died in the Spokane County Jail from a perforated intestine. During the case, we learned that Spokane County had failed to retain important video evidence surrounding her in-custody death. Although the County preserved some video evidence, it allowed some of the most important video evidence to be destroyed — including video that might have directly contradicted certain claims relating to her care. Once again, we asked the court to issue terminating sanctions against the county and issue a default judgment against it. Our extensive motion, which was again supported by copious citations to deposition testimony and other evidence, can be read here: Estate of Hill: Plaintiffs’ motion for default judgment for spoliation of evidence.

Again, we were successful. The federal district court entered an extensive order, 45-pages in length, in which it found that Spokane County allowed the relevant video to be overwritten with an intent to avoid its litigation obligations. It further found that “only the severe measures authorized [by the rule] would sufficiently penalize Spokane County, deter similar future conduct [and] cure the prejudice” caused by the destruction. The court’s excellent and well-reasoned decision can be read here: Estate of Hill: Order Granting Default Judgment Against Spokane County.

The Hill case proceeded to trial against Spokane County to determine the question of damages, and the jury returned a verdict against the County for $2.75 million, along with $24 million in punitive damages against its co-defendant, a national correctional healthcare company called NaphCare.

Dealing with spoliation of evidence can be a critical part of pursuing litigation involving wrongful death in jail. In this regard, our philosophy is simple. When a defendant flouts the rules surrounding the preservation of evidence, we fight back and hold them to task.

If you or a loved one has been a victim of serious injury and/or death at the hands of police or in jail or prison, tell us about your case.