Earlier this month, a federal judge in Seattle threw out a $21.5 million dollar jury verdict awarded to a man who claimed he was injured during a cruise in 2011, after the man’s former assistant came forward to say he had intentionally deleted emails that could have hurt his case.
In 2011, Mr. James Hausman embarked on an eight month cruise around the world operated by Holland America Line. Mr. Hausman alleged that when the cruise ship was approaching Honolulu, Hawaii an automatic sliding glass door on the ship improperly closed and struck his head. He subsequently filed a negligence action alleging the incident resulted in a brain injury that caused him to have seizures, dizziness, forgetfulness and loss of balance. After a two week trial, the jury rendered a verdict in favor of Mr. Hausman for $21.5 million dollars in damages.
Two weeks after the trial, Mr. Hausman’s former assistant, Amy Mizeur, came forward to testify that Mr. Hausman had deliberately sabotaged the cruise ship’s pretrial discovery efforts by deleting key and damning emails from his computer. As evidence, Ms. Mizeur produced several emails that she was able to recover from Mr. Hausman’s computer.
After a December 2015 hearing on the uncovered emails, the federal judge ordered a new trial, saying she found Ms. Mizeur’s testimony at the hearing credible and that the newly uncovered emails expose “grave inconsistencies” with Mr. Hausman’s story. At present, no new trial date has been set.
While Mr. Hausman’s actions appear to be intentional and self-serving, this case serves as an important reminder to both individuals and businesses of the importance to preserve potentially relevant evidence, including electronically-stored information (“ESI”) such as emails, in anticipation of future litigation and during the litigation process.
In the past several years spoliation of relevant evidence, notably ESI spoliation, has assumed a high level of importance in civil litigation which warrants very careful attention and proactive measures. When the prospect of litigation is present, parties are required to preserve documents that may be relevant to the issues to be raised. The obligation to preserve evidence begins when a party knows or should have known that the evidence is relevant to future or current litigation. Companies must take proactive measures to develop a litigation readiness plan and safeguard electronic information.