A jury recently ruled in favor of pop-star Taylor Swift in her sexual assault case against former radio host, David Mueller. The win was mostly symbolic, with Mueller owing a measly $1 in damages. However, along with Swift’s victory, came a few lessons about proper evidence handling. The singer claimed that Mueller groped her as they posed for a photo during a pre-concert meet-and-greet in 2013, and the photo itself became a key exhibit in the case. As a result, her radio promotions manager reported the incident to the station Mueller worked for.
Mueller sued Swift and her team for tortious interference after he was fired from his position as a local morning radio DJ. Mueller claims Swift interfered with his employment, intentionally damaged his contract, and caused economic harm. In court, Swift was dismissed as a defendant in the suit and the other defendants were found not liable for the loss of Mueller’s job. The details of Swift’s testimony regarding the sexual assault have captured the nation’s interest since she described the incident with blunt language in court. While many followed this saga simply for the celebrity-gossip factor, there are several lessons to be learned about how the preservation of potential evidence can affect a case.
Once a party reasonably anticipates litigation, it is incredibly important that any potential evidence be preserved. There were several instances in which the former radio DJ had mishandled such evidence. For example, Mueller recorded his conversations with representatives from the radio station during the investigation that eventually led to his firing. After contacting his attorney, Mueller edited the recordings down to short clips, meant to show the kinds of questions he was asked during investigation.
The full original recordings were still retained on Mueller’s computer until coffee was accidentally spilled on it and he replaced his laptop – choosing not to keep the hard drive or attempt to recover any of the files on it. There was also a copy on an external drive, but that drive similarly “stopped working” and was discarded. Weeks before the trial, Swift moved for sanctions against Mueller, arguing that his destruction of evidence should result in the court directing the jury to assume that the entire recording “would have been unfavorable”.
Judge William J. Martinez decided against ordering that instruction, explaining that such a harsh penalty would only be issued if the evidence was destroyed in bad faith--and in this instance, he felt that Mueller’s actions didn’t meet that standard.
“Plaintiff knew full well that litigation was imminent, since he was pursuing it. He knew that he was the only person in possession of the complete audio recording. He made the decision— inexplicably, in the Court’s view—to alter the original evidence and to present his lawyer with only “clips” hand-picked from the underlying evidence. This reflects that he obviously intended to make use of portions of the recording to advance his own claims. Plaintiff nevertheless failed to take any number of rather obvious steps to assure that this evidence was not lost.
In addition to Mueller’s failure to protect the electronic evidence on his laptop and backup hard drive, he also threw out his cell phone after litigation had begun which was used to make the recordings and may have included relevant evidence. While he was found to be “unjustifiably careless in his handling of evidence that he had a clear duty to preserve, Swift would have to show that Mueller was aware of the weakness in his case for the court to find he acted in bad faith.
Mueller’s carelessness did not go unpunished; the court deemed that Mueller could be cross examined in front of the jury regarding the destruction of the Electronically Stored Information (ESI). Therefore, the jury could decide for themselves whether Mueller was merely negligent, or truly acted in bad faith. If the court finds that someone has mishandled evidence, the repercussions can range from a limiting of claims, to monetary sanctions, a default judgment and the dismissal of the entire case, or an adverse inference instruction--which is what Swift sought in this matter.
Such intimidating ramifications make it all the more important to ensure you follow the rules. In order to ascertain you are protected from any legal consequences, you must seek legal counsel from an knowledgeable, skillful, and dedicated legal professional who can ensure you are meeting your preservation duties.
Contact Our Sacramento Legal Team Today
If you are anticipating litigation, it is vital you preserve any relevant data. A qualified legal team such as ours at Herrig & Vogt, LLP can help to identify potential sources of electronically stored information and implement a strategy to preserve and eventually collect that data. Our lawyers have the experience, education, and skill necessary to advocate on your behalf, regardless of any legal complications you may be facing.
If you have any questions about the obligation to preserve potentially relevant electronically stored information, don’t hesitate to reach out to Herrig & Vogt, LLP at 888.901.8229.