The New Jersey Appellate Court recently upheld a spoliation claim against a plaintiff company that sued prior owners for violations of New Jersey’s Spill Compensation and Control Act and common law claims of nuisance and negligence.
In 18-01 Pollit Drive v. Engel, Docket No. A-4833-13T3, the new owner of a former printing facility site discovered contamination during redevelopment activities and filed a contribution suit against several former owners for investigation and remediation costs. The owner’s expert concluded that contamination under the building came from an acid dilution sump pit and sewer piping under the concrete slab floor. To demonstrate the timing and source of the discharges of contamination, the owner’s expert relied on photos of the pipe, the sump pit and concrete floor, samples of piping from another location on the site, and data derived from sludge in the sump pit and soil from under the sump, all of which had been excavated and discarded before defendants’ experts could examine them. Defendants argued that their experts needed to examine the original pipe, sump pit and concrete floor and filed motions to dismiss the action on spoliation grounds.
A “spoliation claim arises when a party in a civil action has hidden, destroyed, or lost relevant evidence and thereby impaired another party’s ability to prosecute or defend the action.” Plaintiff argued that it was not required to save the pipe because it did not intend to bring suit at the time it was discarded. The Court disagreed, stating that “the obligation to preserve evidence is not triggered by the spoliator’s intent to bring suit but rather it arises when litigation is probable.” Noting that plaintiff was a sophisticated investor that knew the site was contaminated, had access to remediation experts and knew about an ongoing cleanup at a nearby Superfund site, the Court held that plaintiff should have anticipated that it could become involved in litigation in some capacity regarding the contamination and therefore had a legal duty to preserve the original pipe. The Court also affirmed that plaintiff had a duty to preserve the sump and concrete floor materials.
The Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint and remanded the case for consideration of whether a lesser sanction could have cured the prejudice created by the spoliation.
As this decision illustrates, failing to preserve evidence in an environmental case can have serious consequences, including dismissal.