In Schroeder v. Commonwealth, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania determined whether a product liability defendant and a non-product liability defendant are entitled to summary judgment when the plaintiff failed to preserve a defectively-designed product. 710 A.2d 23, 24 (Pa. 1998). In Schroeder, plaintiff represented the state of the decedent, who died when his truck caught fire after the decedent lost control of the truck. Following the accident, the decedent’s insurer sold the truck’s remains to a scrapper, who took the remains to a salvage yard after plaintiff signed title over to the insurer. The plaintiff requested the salvage yard not sell or destroy the truck until examination. However, the salvage yard sold many of the truck’s parts. The plaintiff filed suit against the truck’s manufacturer and seller alleging it was defective. Plaintiff also sued the DOT alleging it negligently maintained the highway, which caused decedent to lose control of his truck. The defendants moved for, and the trial court granted, summary judgment on the ground the truck had been spoiled. The Commonwealth Court affirmed, finding the plaintiff was vested with absolute responsibility to preserve evidence and failed to do so, warranting summary judgment.
Applying previously stated methods to the case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court, determining that the product liability defendants, the seller and manufacturer, were not entitled to summary judgment. As to fault, the first factor for spoliation, the court found that no evidence in the summary judgment motions supported the plaintiff’s transfer to the salvage yard was negligent or in bad faith, particularly given the plaintiff’s requests not to sell or destroy the truck. Additionally, the court found the second and third factors also did not necessitate summary judgment in the case. The court determined that because the plaintiff claimed product liability based on a design defect common to all similar trucks, the prejudice to the defendants/appellees was not great as they could inspect other trucks for the alleged defect. Accordingly, the court noted a lesser sanction, like a jury instruction on the spoliation, was warranted.
Additionally, the court determined that DOT also was not entitled to summary judgment based on spoliation. The court reiterated that summary judgment was not warranted due to plaintiff’s fault. Further, examining the second factor, the court noted DOT suffered less prejudice from spoliation of evidence than the products liability defendants, as claims against DOT related to the condition of the roads rather than the truck. Finally, in consideration of the third factor, the court found that a lessor sanction such as a jury instruction on the spoliation would be proper.
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