Automobile Manufacturers Often Try to Inspect Vehicles after an Accident Without First Contacting Any Lawyers or Legal Authorities, Which Casts a Cloud of Suspicion
As an experienced Philadelphia auto defect lawyer who has handled some of the most catastrophic claims over the last three decades, the one thing that I have come to recognize is that most automakers will throw the rules of fairness aside and do anything it takes to win a case when their corporate profitability is at stake.
In many of our auto defect and product liability cases that have occurred throughout the United States, we have noticed an interesting pattern of investigators covertly employed by major automakers arriving on the scene just shortly after the accident performing what we sometimes refer to as a “covert spy and clean up mission”.
In a recent Florida case, despite the fact that there was limited notification to surviving family members just approximately 1 ½ hours after the accident, an investigator who was traced back to one of the automobile manufacturers was seen inspecting the vehicle and removing debris from the road. This scenario seemed to reproduce itself in other cases we are investigating, and recently, Toyota was sanctioned in a case after finding that Toyota defense lawyers inspected a victim’s vehicle without first contacting the victim’s lawyers.
When we receive notice of a potential product liability claim or car accident involving serious injuries and property damage, the first thing we try to do is put all of the potential parties, including the insurance company, defendants, auto manufacturers, and legal authorities, on notice to preserve evidence to avoid non-spoliation of information and evidence which could be crucial in protecting the claim.
The pre-litigation phase of a trial is the most important stage of the process when it comes time to inspecting and gathering evidence to be interpreted by experts, investigators, and counsel. In the Toyota situation, the Judge overseeing a sudden acceleration case determined that Toyota violated his Order to preserve data by failing to contact lawyers for the crash victims prior to conducting an inspection. When a plaintiff’s attorney, experts, and investigators are not present for a vehicle inspection, it is impossible to know just what is going on and the possibility does exist that data can be altered despite the fact that many of the experts hired on behalf of the defendant automobile manufacturers or from the automobile manufacturer itself claim that they would never do such a thing. All parties to any product liability claim and their lawyers have a duty to preserve evidence and not perform any inspection testing that might be destructive, jeopardize, or compromise facts in the case. If any party or lawyer intends or even negligently destroys or alters evidence in a case, the same is referred to as spoliation, which makes it more difficult for the opponent to prove their case. While a Court may order sanctions, often it is not enough.
Frequently a Judge will issue a sanction informing the jury that a party’s conduct in destroying or altering evidence that would have been unfavorable to that party and presume the evidence would have been unfavorable. However, evidence that has been destroyed or altered is the crux of the case and many cases may not even make it as far as the courtroom.
We have been contacted in many cases late in the game when other lawyers not familiar with non-spoliation letters or the preservation of evidence have simply missed the opportunity to properly conduct this most important inspection and gathering of evidence and failed to send non-spoliation and preservation letters to the proper parties. What could have been a good case has been severely compromised.
One of the mottos that I am fond of using and find to be most accurate in my practice of law and in life is that chance favors the prepared mind.