JOHN A. GARDNER ET AL.
R & J EXPRESS, LLC
Session February 20, 2018
from the Circuit Court for Hamblen County No. 15CV181 Beth
Boniface, Judge No. E2017-00823-COA-R3-CV
negligence action that arose from a tractor-trailer accident,
the trial court dismissed the plaintiffs' claims
following the court's determination that a critical piece
of evidence had been destroyed by the plaintiffs, resulting
in severe prejudice to the defendant. The court further
determined that dismissal was the only equitable remedy for
the plaintiffs' spoliation of evidence. The plaintiffs
timely appealed the dismissal of their claims. Discerning no
reversible error, we affirm.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit
Court Affirmed; Case Remanded
K. Vowell and Martin Ellis, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the
appellants, John A. Gardner and Ester Gardner.
L. Sharpe, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, R & J
R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in
which John W. McClarty and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ., joined.
R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE.
Factual and Procedural Background
action was filed as a result of a tractor-trailer accident
that occurred on May 29, 2015, in North Carolina. John
Gardner, one of the plaintiffs in this matter, owned an
over-the-road tractor, which he was using to haul a trailer
owned by the defendant, R & J Express, LLC ("R &
J"), on the date in question. Ester Gardner, John
Gardner's wife and co-plaintiff in this action, was
riding with Mr. Gardner on that day as a passenger. The
Gardners allege that the accident occurred because the tandem
axle on the trailer "suddenly and unexpectedly"
came loose while they were traveling down the highway,
causing the tractor-trailer to overturn. Both the tractor and
trailer were damaged, and Ms. Gardner was severely injured.
Shortly thereafter, on June 17, 2015, the Gardners retained
November 18, 2015, the Gardners filed a complaint in the
Hamblen County Circuit Court ("trial court"),
alleging that R & J, having exclusive control of the
trailer, had been negligent in its inspection and maintenance
of the trailer and had failed to ensure that the trailer was
in compliance with all federal motor vehicle safety
standards. The Gardners asserted that the trailer was the
cause of the accident in question, which had caused Ms.
Gardner to suffer severe and permanent bodily injury. The
Gardners also asserted that Mr. Gardner had "suffered
total loss of his tractor and said tractor having been
destroyed this Plaintiff has incurred a lost wage claim and a
loss of earning capacity." The Gardners sought damages
in the amount of $850, 000.
Gardners subsequently filed an amended complaint, adding a
claim for punitive damages based on their allegation that R
& J had been falsifying its annual inspection reports
with regard to the trailer. The Gardners increased their
ad damnum clause to in excess of $15, 000, 000.
January 12, 2016, R & J filed an answer, denying all
allegations of negligence and wrongdoing. R & J asserted
that the causes of the accident were Mr. Gardner's
failure to keep the tractor under control, his failure to
exercise due care, and his operation of the tractor-trailer
at an excessive rate of speed. R & J further claimed that
Mr. Gardner failed to perform the required pre-trip
inspection in accordance with federal motor carrier safety
regulations. In addition, R & J alleged that Mr.
Gardner's own negligence barred any recovery and that Ms.
Gardner was an unauthorized passenger in the vehicle.
19, 2016, R & J filed a "Motion for Spoliation
Sanctions with Incorporated Memorandum of Law." Relying
on Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 34A.02, R & J
asserted that the Gardners should be sanctioned for
discarding or destroying evidence. In support, R & J
argued that Mr. Gardner had discarded his tractor by allowing
the insurance company to take possession of it, such that he
no longer knew of its whereabouts. R & J further claimed
that because no witnesses had observed the accident, R &
J's expert needed to inspect the tractor in order to
determine whether there existed a mechanical problem that may
have caused the accident. Due to the "destruction"
of this "crucial" piece of evidence, R & J
claimed that it was unduly prejudiced and that the only
adequate remedy was dismissal of the Gardners' claims.
Gardners filed a response opposing the motion for sanctions,
wherein they asserted that Mr. Gardner did not willfully
allow the tractor to be destroyed in order to prevent its
inspection. The Gardners also sought sanctions against R
& J for its alleged production of falsified inspection
records concerning the trailer during pretrial discovery. Mr.
Gardner executed an affidavit stating that he had no
knowledge of anything mechanically wrong with the tractor
prior to the May 2015 accident. According to Mr. Gardner, the
brakes, tires, engine bearings, and other items had been
Gardner indicated, on the day of the accident, he informed
the owner of R & J, Rex Satterfield, about the accident
and told him the location of the garage to which the tractor
and trailer had been towed. Mr. Satterfield dispatched
another truck to that garage within forty-eight hours to pick
up the items that were being hauled in the trailer. Mr.
Gardner claimed that to his knowledge, Mr. Satterfield made
no attempt to inspect the tractor at that time. Mr. Gardner
also reported that he later signed over the title of the
tractor to the insurer who afforded insurance coverage for
the tractor. He further related that Mr. Satterfield was
aware of the identity of the insurer. According to Mr.
Gardner, he never intended to destroy the tractor and had no
idea that it was going to be "scrapped out" by the
insurer. Mr. Gardner affirmed that he retained counsel on
June 17, 2015, with the intent of instituting the instant
the filing of numerous motions by the parties regarding
possible sanctions, the trial court conducted a hearing on
September 6, 2016. Following that hearing, the Gardners filed
a motion in limine seeking to exclude the testimony
of R & J's expert, arguing in part that his opinions
were based on speculation because he had never inspected the
tractor. The trial court held another hearing
regarding the pending motions on November 17, 2016.
trial court subsequently entered an order on December 8,
2016, determining that R & J had been "severely
prejudiced" in its ability to defend against the
Gardners' claims due to the unavailability of the
tractor, which the court described as a "key piece of
evidence." The court thus ordered that the Gardners
would have thirty days to attempt to locate and produce the
tractor for inspection. The court further directed that
should the Gardners be unable to produce the tractor in the
same condition as on the date of the accident, their
complaint would be dismissed with prejudice. All other
motions were held in abeyance.
Gardners subsequently filed a motion to reconsider, reporting
their discovery that the tractor's engine had been
removed and the chassis sold for salvage by their insurance
carrier. The Gardners stated that the tractor had been in the
custody of the insurer since the accident and that the
Gardners had no control over its disposition. The
Gardners further posited that R & J should not be allowed
to claim prejudice because R & J did not request that the
tractor be preserved until January 25, 2016, which was 242
days following the accident.
December 19, 2016, R & J provided written notice to the
trial court that the tractor had not been produced within the
thirty-day time limit established by the court's prior
order. On April 4, 2017, the trial court entered an order
granting R & J's motion for sanctions, stating in
Court will first address the Defendant's Motion for
Spoliation Sanctions. In 2015, the Tennessee Supreme Court
clarified the totality of the circumstances analysis to be
used in spoliation cases. The Court stated the determinative
1. The culpability of the spoliating party in causing the
destruction of the evidence, including evidence of
intentional misconduct or fraudulent intent;
2. The degree of prejudice suffered by the non-spoliating
party as a result of absence of the evidence;
3. Whether, at the time the evidence was destroyed, the
spoliating party knew or should have known that the evidence
was relevant to pending or ...