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Mooradian v. FCA U.S. LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio

December 14, 2017

DONNA MOORADIAN, ET AL. Plaintiffs,
v.
FCA US, LLC, Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER [RESOLVING DOC. NO. 46]

          JAMES S. GWIN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Defendant FCA US, LLC (“FCA”) requests that the Court sanction Plaintiff White and his counsel for spoliating evidence.[1] FCA manufactures Chrysler automobiles, including Jeep Wranglers. Plaintiffs oppose the sanction motion, arguing that no spoliation occurred.[2]

         For the reasons stated below, the Court GRANTS IN PART Defendant's motion.

         I. Background

         This is a case about sand. Specifically, in this case, the Plaintiffs allege that casting sand used in creating Jeep Wrangler engine parts seeps into those vehicles' radiators, causing heating and cooling issues.

         Perhaps the most important piece of evidence in this case, then, is the fluid in a Wrangler's radiator. Plaintiffs allege casting sand settles in some Wrangler radiators causing a type of sludge. Plaintiff White and his attorneys' (mis)handling of that fluid is the reason for this Order.

         On August 17, 2017, Defendant FCA sent written discovery requests to Plaintiff White. Among those requests, FCA asked White to “[w]ithin 90 days . . . [produce] YOUR VEHICLE for a private inspection by FCA U.S. at an FCA U.S. authorized dealership chosen by YOU.”[3]Plaintiff White responded that he would produce his vehicle for inspection as requested.[4]

         Between FCA's request and Plaintiff White's response, however, Plaintiff White took his vehicle to an unaffiliated automobile service location at his counsel's behest.[5] White and White's attorney gave FCA's counsel no notice. On September 14, 2017, White took his vehicle to Finish Line Performance LLC (“Finish Line”) and had the coolant in his radiator flushed.[6]

         White did not take his Wrangler to Finish Line for any needed service to operate his vehicle.[7] White took his vehicle to Finish Line because his lawyers told him to.[8] Neither he nor his attorneys informed Defendant FCA that White was going to take his vehicle in for this work.

         White requested that Finish Line record their work and that they save anything that came out of the radiator.[9] When White received his vehicle back from Finish Line, they also gave him two large, unlabeled, unsealed, half-filled jugs of liquid that Finish Line said came from his radiator flush.[10] That same day, they also sent him four videos through Facebook Messenger, purportedly of their servicing his vehicle.[11]

         Neither White, his counsel, nor any representative of Defendant FCA observed the making of these videos. The videos show fluid being drained from a vehicle in an auto repair shop.[12] The fluid pours over part of that vehicle's underbody, through a dirty funnel, and into a container. In another video, liquid from one container is poured into what appears to be one of the jugs White now possesses. The workstation and shop are dirty in predictable ways.

         Finish Line seemingly shot these videos on a cell phone, and so they are of relatively low quality. There are no wide shots in the videos. Instead, the videos are all shot in various degrees of close-up. Because of this, neither the people in the videos nor the vehicle they are working on is readily identifiable. Additionally, none of the four videos are time stamped, and they do not show an obviously continuous sequence. There is no indication of a precise order of events or a description of what happens when the camera is off.

         Because of these flaws, it is difficult, if not impossible, to tell whether these videos show what Plaintiff White and his counsel says that they show.

         What may be even more concerning, however, is what White says happened after he picked up his vehicle and the jugs of liquid from Finish Line. White says that he took the unlabeled and unsealed jugs, purportedly containing the casting-sand filled liquid drained from his radiator, and sat them in his car during his twelve-hour shift at work.[13] When White got off work, he put the jugs in the breezeway at his mother's house.[14] He left them there, seemingly unattended, for about three weeks, until he picked them up and brought them to his deposition.[15]

         II. Legal Standard

         “District courts have broad discretion to craft proper sanctions for the spoliation of evidence.”[16] When a party seeks sanctions for its opponent's spoliation of evidence, that party must show: “‘(1) that the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; (2) that the [evidence] was destroyed with a culpable state of mind; and (3) that the destroyed evidence was relevant to the party's claim or defense such that a reasonable trier of fact could find that it would support that claim or defense.'”[17] “The culpable state of mind factor is satisfied by a showing that the evidence was destroyed knowingly, even if without intent to breach a duty to preserve it, or negligently.”[18]

         A proper sanction for spoliation of evidence “serve[s] both fairness and punitive functions.”[19] It both levels the evidentiary playing field and punishes the spoliating party by ensuring that they suffer any risk of an erroneous judgment.[20]

         III. Discussion

         A. Requirements for Sanctions

         As an initial matter, Plaintiff White is wrong with his contention that spoliation sanctions are based on state and not federal law. The Sixth Circuit has held that “the authority to impose sanctions for spoliated evidence arises not from substantive law but, rather, ‘from a court's inherent power to control the judicial process.'”[21] Because of this, federal law applies to crafting spoliation sanctions.[22]

         Plaintiff White's and his attorneys' actions satisfy each requirement for a spoliation sanction. Plaintiff White, alone, controlled this evidence.[23] The work was done on his vehicle, and he is the sole owner of that vehicle.[24] Further, Plaintiff White and his attorneys admit that they had a duty to preserve this evidence.[25]

         Plaintiff White and his counsel admit that they had a culpable state of mind. While Plaintiff White testified that his attorneys were aware of his plan to get his car worked on, [26]Plaintiff's opposition to FCA's sanctions motion actually clarifies that statement. In fact, White's counsel told him to ...


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