Blinzler v. Marriott Int'l, Inc., 81 F.3d 1148 (1st Cir. 1996) (full-text).
Factual Background Edit
A hotel guest suffered a mild heart attack and died several days later. Because the hotel operator had delayed calling an ambulance, the decedent suffered brain damage that ultimately caused his death. Approximately thirty days later, the hotel destroyed its printout of outgoing calls from the hotel's PBX operator for the date of the incident (the "Xeta" report). At trial, the hotel objected to the introduction of evidence of the existence and destruction of the printout, contending that it discarded the report pursuant to its established practice.
Appellate Court Proceedings Edit
The First Circuit held that the district court has "considerable discretion" in deciding whether to allow the jury to draw an adverse inference. According to the First Circuit, no direct evidence of a cover-up is required, "[c]ircumstantial evidence will suffice." The First Circuit stated:
|“||When a document relevant to an issue in a case is destroyed, the trier of fact sometimes may infer that the party who obliterated it did so out of a realization that the contents were unfavorable. Before such an inference may be drawn, there must be a sufficient foundational showing that the party who destroyed the document had notice both of the potential claim and of the document's potential relevance. Even then, the adverse inference is permissive, not mandatory. If, for example, the factfinder believes that the documents were destroyed accidentally or for an innocent reason, then the factfinder is free to reject the inference.||”|
The First Circuit then applied its reasoning to the facts, concluding that the defendant had ample notice that the report was relevant to potential litigation well before the action was filed:
|“||A reasonable factfinder could easily conclude that Marriott was on notice all along that the Xeta report for November 13, 1992 was relevant to likely litigation. Although no suit had yet been begun when the defendant destroyed the document, it knew of both James Blinzler's death and the plaintiff's persistent attempts — including at least one attempt after Blinzler died — to discover when the call for emergency aid had been placed. This knowledge gave the defendant ample reason to preserve the report in anticipation of a legal action. When the evidence indicates that a party is aware of circumstances that are likely to give rise to future litigation and yet destroys potentially relevant records without particularized inquiry, a factfinder may reasonably infer that the party probably did so because the records would harm its case.||”|
The First Circuit then addressed the defendant's objection to the admission of evidence that the security officer's daily log for the same date was also unavailable. The First Circuit noted that the defendant had no good explanation for the missing log, and held that the factfinder could reasonably conclude that the unavailability of the two related documents for the date of the incident was more than a mere coincidence:
|“|| The veteran district judge, after hearing all the evidence limning [sic] these mysterious disappearances, put it bluntly in the course of ruling on post-trial motions: