Going Paperless in a Spoliating World

Power v. Power
Dallas Court of Appeals, No. 05-19-01557-CV (May 3, 2022)
Justices Molberg, Nowell (Opinion), and Goldstein
In Power v. Power, the Fifth Court confronted a spoliation jury instruction given after a company went paperless and destroyed a decade’s worth of invoices central to the fiduciary duty claims in the lawsuit. Finding error, the Court reversed and remanded the case for a new trial.

Brothers Craig Power and Braden Power developed real estate together. Craig operated the business, and Braden designed and oversaw the business’s construction activities. In 2013, Craig decided the company would adopt a paperless recordkeeping system and authorized the destruction of ten boxes of invoices dating back to 2003. The brothers later sued each other over finances and distributions.

At trial, the court admitted evidence that Craig gave permission for a payroll employee to shred old invoices when they converted to electronic billing. Braden’s counsel also stated in opening and closing arguments that Craig ordered the destruction of the documents and that that “alone is a breach of fiduciary duty.” The trial court subsequently instructed the jury on spoliation without naming the offending party:
Invoices and documents which would demonstrate or reflect expenses relating to Craig Power and Braden Power [sic] real estate transactions have been destroyed.
You may consider that the invoices, documents, and records destroyed would have been unfavorable to the party who destroyed the invoices, documents, and records on the issues of whether the party complied with the party’s legal duties and the failure to properly account for money under the party’s care and control.
The jury returned a verdict in favor of Braden awarding damages against Craig. This appeal followed.

The Court first addressed whether the jury charge constituted a spoliation instruction when it did not name the party responsible for the destruction of documents. It did. There was no evidence or argument that Braden had destroyed evidence, while Braden’s counsel put on testimony and made arguments that Craig had. Therefore, not naming Craig as the spoliating party was “not determinative.”

Next, the Court analyzed whether the “severe spoliation sanction” of a jury instruction was an abuse of discretion that probably caused the rendition of an improper judgment. It was and it did. To sanction a party for spoliating evidence, the trial court must, outside the presence of the jury, find that (1) the spoliating party had a duty to preserve evidence, and (2) the party intentionally or negligently breached that duty. The trial court did not do that here. Because of the closely contested nature of the issues at trial, the emphasis Braden’s counsel placed on spoliation, and the harshness of a spoliation instruction, the Court of Appeals found harm, reversing and remanding for a new trial.
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