Mississippi Court of Appeals Reverses Jury Award of $0, Finding Spoliation Instruction Improper
In Teal v. Jones, Case No. 2015-00259 (Miss. Ct. App., Jan. 3, 2017), Plaintiff sued her ex-husband’s former mistress for alienation of affections. The divorce between Plaintiff and her ex-husband was finalized in June 2008; however, after the divorce was over, Plaintiff learned about the extramarital affair between Defendant and her ex-husband. The jury at trial found in Plaintiff’s favor on her alienation of affections, but declined to award her any damages. She filed a Motion for New Trial, a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and additur. The court denied her motions, and she filed an appeal. Her appellate argument was that the court erred in instructing the jury that she had destroyed evidence and giving an adverse inference instruction as to the missing evidence.
After filing the initial lawsuit, Plaintiff filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy and listed the suit in her statement of financial affairs, but failed to designate it as an asset in the schedules. The case was therefore listed as a no asset case and discharged without administration of any assets. The Chapter 7 trustee then filed a motion to reopen the case to pursue the complaint as an estate asset and hired Plaintiff’s attorney as counsel for the estate. Thereafter, Defendant’s counsel sent a litigation hold letter with respect to ESI. At her deposition in 2013, Plaintiff testified that she had regularly deleted emails from her ex-husband and others throughout the marriage and no longer had any of their emails to one another. She also testified that she had thrown away her laptop after spilling coffee on it. Her desktop computer was in a storage unit. When Defendant moved to compel the devices, it was discovered that Plaintiff had sold the desktop in 2012. The court ordered production of emails and computers, or provide a detailed explanation as to why she could not. The court reserved ruling on a jury instruction as to spoliation. Ultimately, the court instructed the jury that Plaintiff had destroyed evidence and that the jury must find that the evidence was likely unfavorable to her. Plaintiff argued on appeal that the instruction was improper.
The Court of Appeals agreed, holding that Plaintiff’s deletion of emails prior to discovering the affair could not amount to spoliation, and because no evidence was offered at trial that a computer was destroyed – in effect, the instruction was a peremptory instruction, because it was based upon evidence never presented to the jury. The court further found the spoliation instruction improper and that it was damaging to Plaintiff. The court remanded, holding that any instruction to the jury should be limited to the destruction of the computers and not include the emails, and the instruction must state that the jury may find the evidence unfavorable, not that it must.