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Coale v. Metro-North Railroad Co.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

April 11, 2016



Charles S. Haight, Jr., Senior United States District Judge

Plaintiff William Coale has filed a motion for spoliation sanctions directed at Defendant Metro-North Railroad Company ("Metro-North") in light of Metro-North employees' alleged improper failure to preserve the physical substance that caused Coale to slip-and-fall, the accident at the core of this dispute. The factual background of this litigation has been documented in detail in a previous order of the Court, [Doc. 67], and is only discussed herein as necessary to resolve the instant motion.

I. Background

On March 18, 2008, Plaintiff, an Assistant Conductor employed by Metro-North, sustained serious injuries after slipping on an unidentified oily substance on the floor of the register room at the New Haven-Union Station. As required by company policy, employees of Metro-North documented the surroundings and took evidence, which included making attempts at the scene, unsuccessfully, to identify the oily substance. However, Metro-North made no effort to secure the physical substance such that efforts could later be made to identify with precision what the substance was. Rather, it directed an employee of the New Haven Parking Authority ("NHPA") to mop away the substance (such that it no longer posed a danger). Doc. 59-1, at 24. In consequence, the current record is silent as to the nature of the substance; the jury will simply not be in a position to know with certainty what the substance was that caused Coale to fall.

In light of this fact, Plaintiff moved for spoliation sanctions. Doc. 58. In essence, he argued that because it was Metro-North's fault that the oily substance was not preserved-and that therefore the jury will be ignorant as to its nature-Metro-North should be the one to bear the consequences of the evidentiary gap. In furtherance of that argument, Plaintiff argued that his motion satisfied the three-part test for the imposition of spoliation sanctions, which requires the movant to establish:

(1) that the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; (2) that the records were 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.

Residential Funding Corp. v. DeGeorge Fin. Corp., 306 F.3d 99, 107 (2d Cir. 2002) (citing Byrnie v. Town of Cromwell, 243 F.3d 93, 107-12 (2d Cir. 2001)).

In an earlier ruling, this Court denied Plaintiff's spoliation motion because he failed to meet the third prong of the Residential Funding test, namely, to demonstrate that the allegedly unpreserved evidence was relevant to his claims. 34 F.Supp.3d 206, 220 (D. Conn. 2014).

However, that ruling was then disturbed on appeal by the Second Circuit, which held that the identification of the substance is relevant to the notice element of Plaintiff's negligence claim because "identifying the substance may have shed light on the party who spilled it." 621 F.App'x 13, 16 (2d Cir. 2015). In light of this finding, the Court of Appeals held that the third factor in the spoliation test was in fact met, and it remanded Plaintiff's spoliation motion with specific direction to "evaluate the remaining factors" that this Court deemed unnecessary to assess.[1] Id.

The Second Circuit's ruling also vacated the Court's determination that summary judgment should enter for Metro-North. Id. at 14-16. This Court came to that conclusion in light of the fact that there was no triable issue as to whether Metro-North had actual or constructive notice of the spilled substance. While the Court of Appeals did not expressly disagree with that finding, it nevertheless disagreed that it was dispositive of the summary judgment motion. It held that this Court erred in its finding that Plaintiff could not proceed, as a matter of law, on a theory of res ipsa loquitur, and that the Court should have let the case proceed to a jury trial on that theory.

Following the Second Circuit's remand order, this Court solicited supplemental briefing on the effect of the Court of Appeals' holdings. Specifically, the Court directed the parties to address "the proper interaction of the spoliation principle with that of res ipsa loquitur." Doc. 84. The parties submitted such briefs, [2] [Docs. 88-90], and Plaintiff's motion is again ripe for disposition.

II. Discussion

A. Spoliation of Evidence

The Court must now determine whether the two previously unaddressed elements of the spoliation sanctions test are met in this case. Specifically, the Court must determine whether Metro-North (i)"had an obligation to preserve [the spilled substance] at the time it was destroyed, " and, if so, (ii) whether it ...

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