The Texas Supreme Court has granted temporary relief while it considers a petition for writ of mandamus in dispute over a Concho County trial court’s spoliation order in a commercial trucking accident case.
In re Tri-National, Inc. (No. 23-081; stay order issued November 8, 2023) arose from a 2020 accident in which the driver of a Tri-National tractor-trailer jackknifed on a wet roadway and collided with an oncoming vehicle. The tractor had three recording systems from Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems, including a processor that collects data from the dash camera, engine, and forward-facing radar. The camera and processor were recovered from the vehicle the day after the accident. Unable to find any video from the camera or data from the processor, a Tri-National employee sent the processor to Bendix. Meanwhile, plaintiff sent a preservation letter to Tri-National and shortly thereafter filed suit. Plaintiff’s counsel inspected the trailer, saw that the camera had been removed, and sent discovery requests to Tri-National for information regarding removal of the equipment. Subsequently, plaintiff filed a motion to compel seeking pictures and video of removed equipment, the opportunity to inspect the equipment, and any data from the Bendix module. Tri-National responded with the Bendix report indicating that there was “no video recovered at incident, date and time requested.” When plaintiff demanded that Tri-National also send the camera to Bendix, Tri-National complied. Nevertheless, Bendix found no video data. Bendix concluded that at the time of the accident, the equipment lost power and did not record the accident.
After lengthy discovery, the case proceeded to trial. Despite plaintiff’s counsel’s assurances to the trial court that he would not seek a spoliation instruction, he nevertheless questioned his expert witness regarding the missing data, raising the impression that Tri-National tampered with it. Tri-National objected and moved for a mistrial, which the trial court granted. Subsequently, plaintiff filed a motion for spoliation. The trial court granted the motion and found that Tri-National “intentionally spoliated the camera.” The court indicated that it would allow the introduction of evidence of spoliation and instruct the jury accordingly. Tri-National filed a petition for writ of mandamus with the Austin Court of Appeals, which denied relief. Tri-National now seeks mandamus from SCOTX.
Tri-National argues that plaintiff did not meet its burden to prove that Tri-National intentionally or negligently spoliated the data, asserting that there is no evidence that any video data existed or that Tri-National intentionally destroyed such evidence. It argues further that plaintiff failed to demonstrate prejudice, that is, that the camera data would have shown anything that other evidence did not show. Tri-National contends, the trial court’s “death penalty” spoliation instruction will deprive it of a fair and impartial trial because the order “improperly and unfairly skews the trial in [plaintiff’s] favor by shifting focus away from the merits of the case and onto actions taken during discovery.” Tri-National asserts finally that it has no adequate appellate remedy should it be forced into a second trial under the trial court’s order, since “any eventual appeal will result in a new trial, requiring the parties to try this case for a third time. This is a substantial waste of the parties’, the courts’, and the public’s time, money, and resources.”
SCOTX has requested a response to the petition, which is due on December 8.