A person injured in a traffic accident has the legal right to seek damages from those responsible for the collision. That may include a negligent driver, but it could also include a vehicle manufacturer or parts maker whose shoddy design or production made a car or truck dangerous to drivers, passengers, and others on the road. As a recent case out of West Virginia’s state Supreme Court shows, these products liability cases are highly dependent on the parties’ ability to see and inspect the supposedly malfunctioning vehicle.
Mr. Rutledge and Mr. Williams were injured in a trucking accident in Ohio County in January 2009. The men, who were employed as long-distance drivers for Werner Enterprises, were traveling on I-79 at the time of the crash. Rutledge was driving the truck, and Williams was resting in the tractor-trailer’s sleeper berth. Rutledge crossed a snow-covered bridge at about 2:30 a.m. when he lost control and struck a guardrail. The impact caused the truck to jackknife, overturn, and slide 30 feet down a steep embankment. Both men were killed in the crash, which also caused a small fire in the truck.
An insurance adjuster for Werner arrived on the scene about three hours after the accident. The adjuster provided a written report and photographs and discussed the crash scene with the company. He also explained that the accident was a single-vehicle crash caused by weather conditions, meaning that the company was likely to be responsible for workers’ compensation death benefits for the two men’s families. A towing company spent most of the day pulling the wreckage of the truck up the embankment and hauling it to a local garage. Within two days of the accident, a Werner official determined that the truck couldn’t be salvaged and ordered the towing company to dispose of the vehicle. A month later, a lawyer for Williams’ family contacted Werner and asked the company to preserve the vehicle and all evidence from the crash so that he could complete an investigation.
Williams’ family later sued the company for wrongful death and negligent training, and they alleged a products liability claim against the truck’s manufacturer. They further argued that Werner had committed spoliation – the intentional destruction of evidence – by allowing the truck to be disposed of. A trial court granted summary judgment to the manufacturer, finding that the family couldn’t prove that the truck was in hazardous condition because it had been destroyed. The court also granted summary judgment to Werner on the spoliation claim, finding that there was no reason to believe that Werner knew or should have known that the family would raise a products liability claim related to the truck’s condition at the time it destroyed the vehicle.
Affirming the decision on appeal, the Supreme Court said the family failed to show that the company intentionally destroyed the truck in order to avoid the products liability claim. “The first evidence that Werner had knowledge of the plaintiffs’ potential product liability suit was on February 18, 2009, when they received a letter from a plaintiff’s lawyer asking that the tractor-trailer be preserved,” the Court said. “But this letter was received over a month after the remains of the tractor-trailer had been hauled to a landfill (in pieces loaded on dump and flatbed trailers) and after Werner was alleged to have ‘spoliated’ evidence critical to the plaintiffs’ case.”
Evidence spoliation is just one of the legal issues that a person injured in a truck or other vehicle accident must consider in the aftermath of the crash. If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident, the Wolfe Law Firm can help. Our West Virginia car accident lawyers have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the firm represents clients in a wide range of injury, criminal defense, and bankruptcy matters. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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