Tuesday, June 19, 2007, 11:25 AM

COA Recognizes "Obstruction Of Justice" Tort, Even When Alleged Obstruction Doesn't Occur In Pending Case

Today the Court of Appeals (COA) recognized the existence of a civil cause of action for "obstruction of justice," but rejected a cause of action for spoliation. The case is Grant v. High Point Regional Health System.

This began as a potential med mal case concerning a hospital's alleged failure to diagnose cancer. After the patient died of cancer, his estate's lawyer wrote the hospital and requested medical records including x-rays. The hospital didn't respond to the lawyer's request. Evidence showed that the x-rays were at the hospital at the time of the request. When the lawyer pressed on and ultimately subpoenaed the x-rays, the hospital said the x-rays missing. Alleging that the lack of x-rays precluded a med mal case from going forward, the estate sued the hospital based on the loss of x-rays, alleging the hospital intentionally or recklessly destroyed the x-rays or negligently failed to preserve them.

The estate pleaded two claims: (1) common law obstruction of justice and (2) spoliation. The trial court dismissed the complaint.

The COA reversed, holding that a cause of action exists at common law for obstruction of justice, that the estate stated a claim for obstruction of justice, and that it didn't matter that no case was pending at the time of the alleged obstruction (i.e., it didn't matter that plaintiff didn't allege the hospital obstructed justice in a pending case). What does it take to plead this cause of action? According to the COA, a defendant is liable if it engages in "acts which obstruct, impede or hinder public or legal justice." The estate stated a claim, the COA held, by alleging that the hospital prevented, obstructed, or impeded justice by precluding the filing of a civil action.

In a separate holding, the COA rejected a cause of action for spoliation of evidence. States have divided over whether spoliation gives rise to a tort action, as opposed to (only) sanctions in a pending case. The Fourth Circuit has held, as a matter of federal law, that spoliation is not a substantive claim or defense but instead is a rule of evidence administered at the discretion of the trial court. Today's holding (that spoliation isn't a substantive claim) may not be such a big deal, given the COA's recognition of a tort for "obstruction of justice." Indeed, in rejecting a spoliation cause of action, the COA held that "it is clear that any wrong alleged by Plaintiff in the present case is not without a remedy because we have already held that Plaintiff stated a cause of action for common law obstruction of justice."

Today's ruling highlights the risks attendant to the destruction or loss of evidence, including electronic data, when litigation is reasonably foreseeable. Many assume that such matters are evidentiary matters dealt with by trial judges in pending cases, in response to motions for sanctions (under Rule 37 or in the trial court's inherent authority), where sanctions may range from an award of costs, to the admission/exclusion of evidence, to an adverse inference instruction, to the dismissal of a claim. But today's case suggests additional exposure in the form of tort liability, with the specter (presumably) of punitive damages, for "obstruction of justice." In this sense, a dispute over lost or missing evidence (e.g., electronic data) becomes the case itself, and not simply a matter of potentially sanctionable conduct within the case.

In today's case, for example, the hospital will now be litigating (in part) a case about the destruction or loss of x-rays, with a jury (if it gets that far) asked to make findings of fact as to how and why the x-rays disappeared and the hospital's state of mind. However, it would seem that in order to prove compensatory damages of the type the estate really would be interested in, the estate would have to prove (as a matter of causation) that had the x-rays been preserved, the estate would've prevailed in its med mal action. (The estate is contending that its actual damages from the alleged obstruction include "all damages [Plaintiff] could have recovered from wrongful death and medical negligence -- i.e. medical expenses, funeral expenses, pain and suffering, loss of services, protection, care and assistance, society, companionship, comfort and guidance, kindly offices and advice.") In this sense, the "obstruction of justice" suit will resemble a legal malpractice action, with causation posing an obstacle to recovery. Like the plaintiff in a legal malpractice action, the plaintiff must prove that but for the alleged wrongful acts or omissions, the plaintiff would've prevailed in the litigation.

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