Companies must preserve video recorded at the time of a workplace accident, even if company officials previously concluded the footage is not relevant, the Montana Supreme Court said in a ruling granting a railroad machinist a new trial.
The 6-1 ruling was made Friday in a case brought by an injured machinist against BNSF Railway Company in a 2009 accident. The machinist, Mark Spotted Horse, said BNSF destroyed video footage that would have provided evidence of his claims of the company's negligence.
Company officials said they reviewed footage from the closest camera after the accident and found it did not show the alleged injury. The video was later automatically overwritten with new video from the camera.
Spotted Horse appealed to the Supreme Court after Cascade County District Judge Julie Macek refused his request for a judgment in his favor for not preserving the video and a trial jury decided the case for BNSF.
The Supreme Court justices said they take seriously abuses of discovery, a legal term that describes the release of documents and evidence during litigation proceedings.
BNSF is aware from past cases of its obligations to preserve evidence, yet did not keep video that could have been used as evidence in Spotted Horse's case, the majority opinion said.
"We reject the notion that BNSF is entitled to unilaterally determine which evidence is relevant or valuable when investigating an alleged work-related accident preceding litigation. Such a decision must be left to the trial court," Justice Patricia Cotter wrote in the opinion.
The court could not determine whether the destruction was deliberate or inadvertent, as the company claims. Regardless, the company should have been sanctioned by Macek for the destruction of evidence, Cotter wrote.
The court sent the case back to the judge for a new trial and an appropriate punishment for BNSF.
Justice Mike Wheat agreed with the court's decision but said he would have gone further and ordered Macek to rule for Spotted Horse outright, instead of granting a new trial. BNSF was on notice that Spotted Horse intended to sue, and the company knowingly destroyed the video, Wheat charged.
Justice Laurie McKinnon wrote in a dissent that she would have affirmed Macek's ruling. BNSF's conduct in destroying the video was inappropriate, but the judge had the discretion on how to neutralize its effect, McKinnon wrote.