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Preservation of Evidence: Here’s What Can Happen When Your Request to Preserve Video Footage Comes Too Late

Readers of this blog know that personal injury lawsuits often hinge on video evidence and the importance of ensuring that such evidence is preserved immediately following an accident. But what happens when the request to preserve video evidence is made too late, and the video has been overwritten? The Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently addressed that issue.

A Bucket Propping Open a Door

In Monarca v. Annie’s Express Laundry, a customer who regularly patronized a laundromat tripped and fell on a bucket filled with sand that was used to prop open the laundromat door. The customer landed on her right knee, and the bucket broke when she fell on it and scratched her calf and shin. The customer’s fiancé then pushed the bucket back into a corner, and the customer picked up a piece of the bucket and began taking pictures with her phone. The customer allegedly began experiencing pain in her legs and back shortly after the accident.

The laundromat had a motion-activated surveillance system that preserved video footage for approximately two weeks, then automatically overwrote it if it was not saved. The laundromat owner took it upon himself to preserve surveillance footage that included the entirety of the customer’s time on the premises and that captured her fall from several angles. The customer retained an attorney who sent a letter 15 days after the accident requesting that all surveillance video from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the date of the accident be preserved. The accident had occurred at approximately 5:50 p.m. By the time that the letter was received, some of the footage that the attorney requested had already been destroyed.

The personal injury lawsuit proceeded to trial, and the customer argued that the court should give what’s called a “spoliation of evidence” instruction to the jury, meaning that because the laundromat had destroyed evidence the jury, in its deliberations, should be allowed to draw an adverse inference against the laundromat. The court declined to do so, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the laundromat, finding that it was not negligent.

The customer appealed to the Superior Court, arguing that the trial court committed a prejudicial error by failing to charge the jury on spoliation of evidence when the facts of the case supported such a jury instruction.

On Appeal

The Superior Court ruled in favor of the laundromat, finding that its failure to preserve the requested surveillance footage did not constitute spoliation of evidence. The court reasoned:

Here, [the customer] failed to establish [the laundromat] negligently or otherwise intentionally permitted the destruction of evidence; indeed, [the laundromat] made efforts to preserve relevant footage of the accident on the date it occurred, “[r]ather than permitting the footage to get overwritten, and without any actual indication that a lawsuit was pending.”

The court also found that additional video footage would not have changed the outcome of the case because the jury “repeatedly saw footage establishing the location of the bucket prior to [the customer’s] arrival and both parties testified that they knew how and where the bucket was situated at the time of the incident.”

Conclusion

We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: If you have been injured in an accident, it is important to contact an attorney immediately to ensure that your legal rights are protected. Although additional video footage most likely would not have changed the outcome of this case, imagine what the outcome might be for a personal injury plaintiff when there is no video evidence preserved because of a delay in seeking counsel.