In the recent Supreme Court case Martin v. Keeley & Sons, Inc., the plaintiffs were performing construction work on a bridge when the concrete I-beam they were standing on collapsed and they fell into a creek below. 2012 Ill. LEXIS 1501. The day after the accident occurred, the defendant destroyed the I-beam by breaking up the concrete portion with a hydraulic hammer. Id. The plaintiffs filed suit for negligent spoliation of evidence. Id.
The Martin Court considered two prior Illinois Supreme Court cases. Dardeen v. Kuehling and Boyd v. Travelers Insurance Co., had provided some guidance for a spoliation of evidence claim. 213 Ill. 2d 329 (2004); 166 Ill. 2d 188 (1995). In Boyd, the Court noted that the general rule in Illinois is that there is no duty to preserve evidence. 166 Ill. 2d at 195. However, the Court provided a two-prong test which a plaintiff must meet in order to establish an exception to the general no-duty rule.Id. The prong that is relevant in the Martin case is the “relationship” prong, which dictates that a plaintiff must show that an agreement, contract, statute, special circumstance or voluntary undertaking has given rise to a duty to preserve evidence on the part of the defendant. Id. The other test, which is not analyzed in Martin, is the “foreseeability” test. Id. Under this second test, a plaintiff must show that the duty extends to the specific evidence at issue by demonstrating that a reasonable person in the defendant’s position should have foreseen that the evidence was material to a potential civil action. Id.
Before analyzing plaintiffs’ contentions, the Martin Court acknowledged that: “Illinois courts have not precisely defined a ‘special circumstance’ in the context of recognizing a duty in a spoliation of evidence claim.” The Court attempted to provide that definition.
First, the Court determined that something more than possession and control are required to establish a special circumstance. Id at 23. The Court acknowledged that the defendant was in possession of the I-beam when the accident occurred. Id at 24. However, as the Court has continued to hold, the general rule is that a defendant has no duty to preserve evidence, unless the plaintiff can show that an exception applies. Dardeen, 213 Ill. 2d 329. Therefore, possession of the evidence is not enough. Id.
Second, the Court found that an exception may apply, or a duty may arise, where the plaintiff specifically requests that the evidence be preserved or segregated for the plaintiff’s benefit. Martin, 2012 Ill. LEXIS 1501 at 23. Even though the plaintiffs in Keeley were injured and only had approximately 24-48 hours to request the preservation of the evidence before Keeley damaged it, the Court still determined that the plaintiffs in fact failed to make such a request. Id. Therefore, no special circumstance applied.
Third, the Court recognized that there is no authority under Illinois law which establishes that an employer-employee relationship is sufficient to form a duty to preserve evidence. Id at 24. Simply put, an employer-employee relationship does not, on its own, constitute a special circumstance under Illinois law. Id.
Thus, the appellate court was reversed. The trial court’s order finding that Keeley had no duty to preserve the I-beam was affirmed.
It should be noted that this decision deals with whether or not the defendant should be liable in tort. It does not address whether discovery sanctions would be appropriate against a defendant who causes an injury and destroys evidence. That situation requires a different analysis which will have to be addressed in another article.