The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently joined “the overwhelming majority” of states that have declined to recognize a separate cause of action in tort for negligent spoliation of evidence. In Pyeritz v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, __ Pa. __, 32 A.2d 687 (2011), the Court held that “Pennsylvania law does not recognize a cause of action for negligent spoliation of evidence.” The case involved a suit against the Commonwealth for the actions of the Pennsylvania State police. Daniel Pyeritz was found dead at the base of a tree while hunting. He was alone and there were no witnesses. The remains of a black nylon belt were found 15 feet up in a tree stand. The Trooper in charge of the investigation into the death took the two pieces of belt as evidence and logged them into evidence.
The estate retained a lawyer to investigate a civil suit. Counsel wrote to the Trooper and asked if the evidence could be retained for the indefinite future, even after the coroner’s inquest, if able to do so. After the inquest finding an avoidable accidental death, counsel requested that the state police retain the evidence and the Trooper agreed. About 7 months later, the evidence was relocated when the state police barracks was moved. The Trooper in charge had been re-assigned to another post before the evidence was moved. The new Troopers, unaware of the communications between counsel and the original Trooper, authorized the destruction of the evidence. All that remained were some photographs and two envelopes with names of two tree stand belt manufacturers written on them.
The estate filed and then settled for $200,000 an action against the two tree stand belt manufacturers. The estate also filed an action against the Commonwealth in negligence for failure to preserve the evidence. The trial court granted summary judgment for the Commonwealth and the intermediate appellate court affirmed. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized that the duty element in negligence required the Court to make a policy judgment whether it is in the public interest to impose damages for failure to conform conduct to a particular standard. The Court held “that as a matter of public policy, this is not a harm against which [a party] should be responsible to protect.” The primary reason relied upon by the Court was that such a cause of action would potentially allow liability where, due to the absence of evidence, it is impossible to determine whether the underlying litigation would have been successful. The Court noted that there were protections already in place to encourage the preservation of evidence and imposing tort liability would involve financial burdens that outweighed the benefit to encourage preservation. The overall public interest favored rejection of a tort based on speculation, the possibility of litigation proliferation, and one whose benefit was already sufficiently protected under existing law.