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Florida Second DCA reverses trial court's dismissal of odometer fraud case as spoliation sanction; auto dealer failed to establish that plaintiff lost, displaced or destroyed repossessed vehicle

On September 6, 2017, in Landry v. Charlotte Motor Cars, LLC, No. 2D16-4430, the Florida Second DCA reversed a trial court’s dismissal of a plaintiff’s odometer fraud case against an auto dealership. The trial court dismissed the case as a sanction against the plaintiff vehicle purchaser for spoliation of evidence, based on as finding that although the plaintiff had not willfully disposed of the vehicle she had a duty to preserve the direct evidence in the case and failed to so when the vehicle was repossessed.

The Second DCA cited the threefold inquiry for the imposition of spoliation sanctions articulated in League of Women Voters of Fla. v. Detzner, 172 So. 3d 363, 391 (Fla. 2015): the court must determine whether: (1) the evidence existed at one time, (2) the spoliator had a duty to preserve the evidence, and (3) the evidence was crucial to an opposing party’s being able to prove its prima facie case or a defense. The Second DCA determined that the defense failed to prove that the vehicle had in fact been destroyed or lost, noting that the defense had simply relied on the fact that the vehicle had been repossessed without any showing that it was in fact unlocatable or destroyed.

The Second DCA additionally noted that it was not self-evident that the plaintiff was required to prevent a nonparty from rightfully possessing the vehicle to preserve the vehicle, especially when the defendant knew the vehicle's identification number and with the exertion of any effort could have located and examined the vehicle.

Finally, the Second DCA noted that to dismiss a case based solely on prejudice to the movant, the spoliated evidence must be so crucial as to completely prevent the movant from defending itself, not merely prevent the movant from defending itself completely. The Court accordingly reversed the dismissal of the case and remanded the case to the trial court for further fact finding as to the status of the vehicle, with a specific instruction to the trial court that dismissal would in any event not be an appropriate remedy unless it appears that the alleged spoliation of the vehicle fatally prejudiced the defense of the case.