This is a review of a personal injury accident claim in which the plaintiff was injured by a chair that was part of a store’s display. The chair had not been assembled correctly, and it collapsed when the plaintiff sat down on it.
The case was further complicated by an attempt by one of the store’s employees to destroy evidence before the trial. The plaintiff’s lawsuit asked the court to award him damages for his injuries as well as to censure the store for the bad acts of the employee.
Statement of Facts…
John Sintaluta and his wife Connie were out shopping for patio furniture when they decided to stop at Sante Ronson & Company, a local retailer. While there Mr. Sintaluta sat on a patio chair set out by the store’s employees for public display and use. As he did the chair collapsed beneath him, and he fell to the floor, sustaining serious injuries to his neck and back.
A Security Officer was dispatched to the scene. When she arrived she began her investigation into the accident. At Sante Ronson & Company, in the event a customer is injured, the Security Officers are trained to investigate the scene, interview witnesses, and the customer, if possible.
They will also take photographs of the scene and check the store’s video for any footage of the incident. All of the gathered information is to be clearly identified and entered into a personal injury accident claim form.
The Security Officer took several detailed photographs of the collapsed chair and the area in which Mr. Sintaluta fell. She also retrieved the video footage which clearly identified Mr. Sintaluta as the chair collapsed beneath him.
At about that time, a store employee sought out the Security Officer and told her he had watched the two store employees as they were assembling the patio chair. He said they had not used all of the parts, and the ones which were left over they had placed in a plastic bag and deposited in a drawer.
The Security Officer gathered the plastic bag containing the parts and noted her retrieval of the items in the personal injury accident claim form. She delivered the form, together with the evidence, to the Loss Prevention Department, admonishing those present to preserve and protect the form and evidence. She told those in the office that the evidence was to be held until the insurance company’s representative came was able to review it.
Several days later, the company’s insurance representative came by the store to conduct the standard insurance company investigation which follows any on-premise injury, whether it be that of an employee or customer.
She reviewed all the evidence previously gathered by the security guard. She also interviewed the employees who improperly assembled the chair, and finally the employee who had originally reported what she had seen to the security officer. The final words of the representative were an additional admonishment to the Loss Prevention Department to preserve and protect the evidence.
Several days later the Chief of Security returned from a few days off. When he heard what had occurred with Mr. Sintatula, he immediately had the evidence brought to him.
Thirty minutes later, he emerged from his office with the evidence. With the personal injury accident report form and other evidence in hand, he marched out the back door and directly to the store’s dumpster.
There he unceremoniously threw out all of the evidence, knowing full well his actions in doing so were inappropriate, and worse, possibly illegal.
The Lawsuit and Trial…
Sintaluta filed suit against Sante Ronson & Company and Frontgate International, the manufacturer of the patio chair, naming them as co-defendants in his personal injury suit.
Sintaluta’s attorney also filed separate Motions for Sanctions against both defendants alleging they purposely and illegally disposed of evidence which they knew would have been an integral part of the lawsuit.
A Motion for Sanctions is a request by a party asking the Court to censure, fine, or even jail another party for unethical behavior during the litigation process.
Although the original evidence had been effectively destroyed by Sante Ronson & Company’s Chief of Loss Prevention, the plaintiff’s attorney called to the witness stand the security officer who completed the original report.
The security officer was asked if she could remember any of the information she had entered into the personal injury accident claim report. She was also asked to describe the video footage, photographs, and if she could remember, what parts she saw in the plastic bag when she retrieved it from the desk drawer.
At the conclusion of the trial, the Court found for the plaintiff Sintaluta and against the defendants’ Sante Ronson & Company and Frontdale International.
In the main case, or “Case in Chief,” the Court ruled against Sante Ronson & Company, awarding Mr. Sintaluta $175,000 for the injuries he suffered as a result of the negligence of Sante Ronson & Company.
The Court also granted Mr. Sintaluta’s Motion for Sanctions against Sante Ronson & Company, citing their Chief of Security’s willful destruction of the personal injury accident claim form and supporting evidence. The Court reprimanded the defendant and their Chief of Security, stating in the decision the willful act of destroying evidence was at a minimum unethical, and that the behavior came dangerously close to being criminal.
The Court punished the Defendant for their Security Chief’s actions, ordering the defendant company to pay an additional amount of $25,000 in punitive damages.
As to Frontdale International, the manufacturer of the chair, the Court awarded Mr. Sintaluta the amount of $10,000 as compensation for his injuries, stating the assembly instructions for their patio chair were ambiguous.
The Court relied on the instructions used for the assembly of the same patio chairs. In rendering its decision, the Court said the patio chairs’ instructions should more clearly emphasize not only the importance of using all the parts, but of the inherent danger to a consumer if they did not.
The Court denied Mr. Sintaluta’s Motion for Sanctions against Frontdale International, stating there was insufficient evidence to prove Frontdale International participated in, or in any manner knew, or had reason to know the evidence would be destroyed.
The legal doctrine of Vicarious Liability means employers are responsible for the actions of their employees. In business, employers must be ever-vigilant when their employees interact with customers.
In this case study just a few minutes of employee inattention to detail resulted in serious injury to a customer and $200,000 in fines and court costs for the employer.
No one person is above the law, and regardless of one’s rank, or perceived importance, the destruction of evidence will be dealt with by the courts swiftly and harshly.
*This case example is for educational purposes only. It is based on actual events although names have been changed to protect those involved. Any resemblance to real persons or entities is purely coincidental.
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