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Gardner v. R & J Express, LLC

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

May 7, 2018

JOHN A. GARDNER ET AL.
v.
R & J EXPRESS, LLC

          Session February 20, 2018

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Hamblen County No. 15CV181 Beth Boniface, Judge No. E2017-00823-COA-R3-CV

         In this 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.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed; Case Remanded

          Donald K. Vowell and Martin Ellis, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellants, John A. Gardner and Ester Gardner.

          Trevor L. Sharpe, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, R & J Express, LLC.

          Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which John W. McClarty and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         This 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 counsel.

         On 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.

         The 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.

         On 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.

         On July 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.

         The 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 recently replaced.

         As Mr. 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 action.

         Following 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.[1] The trial court held another hearing regarding the pending motions on November 17, 2016.

         The 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.

         The 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.[2]

         On 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 pertinent part:

         The 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 factors:

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 ...

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