Siding with the defendant, the Illinois Supreme Court on Thursday reversed a ruling of the Fifth District Appellate Court in a negligent spoliation of evidence case.
The court's 6-1 ruling affirms former St. Clair County Circuit Judge Michael O'Malley's ruling that granted summary judgment to general contractor Keeley & Sons.
At issue was whether Keeley had a duty to preserve a cement I-beam that collapsed during a bridge reconstruction on Highway 154 near Sparta and injured three of its employees.
The majority of the state high court determined that Keeley did not have a duty to preserve the beam, saying the plaintiffs failed to prove the "relationship" prong of a two-prong duty analysis in Boyd v. Travelers Insurance Co. (1995).
Under this prong, a plaintiff must show that an agreement, contract, statute, special circumstance, or voluntary undertaking requires the defendant to preserve evidence.
Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride, however, dissented from the majority opinion, saying the "unique factual circumstances of this case" sufficiently met the relationship prong.
As such, Kilbride contends, the court should have proceeded to consider the second prong of the Boyd test, which deals with foreseeability.
The question over duty stems from the 2001 incident that injured plaintiffs Terry Martin, Ardith Wynn and Rickey Vanover.
The three Keeley employees were standing on the beam to install a handrail when it collapsed, sending them down to the creek below the bridge.
Following the accident, the three employees were taken to the hospital and the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspected the site.
The next day, Keeley destroyed the beam by breaking it up with a hydraulic hammer.
The employees sued the beam's manufacturer, a cement company and the designer of a bearing assembly that supported the beam for negligent design.
They also sued Keeley for spoliation of evidence, claiming it had a duty to keep the beam as evidence in potential litigation.
As a result of Keeley's alleged breach of duty, the plaintiffs argued that they were unable to prove their claims against the other defendants, two of whom filed counterclaims against Keeley for negligent spoliation of evidence.
Keeley's president, Eugene Keeley, testified at trial that the beam could have been preserved, but destroyed because the cement company told him a replacement beam could be sent quicker if it had parts of the old beam.
He also testified that IDOT told him the beam needed to be removed from the creek to prevent erosion and that he felt like his company had satisfied its obligation to IDOT and OSHA by preserving the beam until they finished their inspections of the site.
In addition, Keeley's president testified that he knew workers had been sent to the hospital after the accident and while he assumed there would be workers' compensation claims, didn't think about a potential lawsuit at the time.
O'Malley agreed with Keeley that it did not have a duty to preserve the beam and granted summary judgment in its favor on the spoliation of evidence claim.
A split panel of the appellate court, however, reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings after determining that Keeley voluntarily undertook a duty to preserve the beam by keeping it for its own investigative purposes
The dissenting appellate court justice said Keeley did not have a duty and had simply let government agencies inspect its property as required by law following an accident.
Writing on behalf of the Supreme Court's majority, Justice Ann Burke wrote that "the general rule in Illinois is that there is no duty to preserve evidence."
"Even if Keeley 'preserved' the evidence for its own investigative purposes, which is questionable ..., since Keeley never performed any testing of the beam or moved the beam from the place where it fell, plaintiffs must demonstrate affirmative conduct by Keeley showing its intent to voluntarily undertake a duty to the plaintiffs," Burke wrote. "They have failed to do so."
The court also rejected the plaintiffs' argument that Keeley's possession and control of the beam constituted special circumstances that created a duty.
"We recognize that plaintiffs in this case had little or no opportunity to request that Keeley preserve the I-beam before it was destroyed on the day following the accident," Burke wrote.
"Nevertheless, plaintiffs and counter-claimants bear the burden of establishing all elements of their spoliation claims."
In his dissent, Kilbride noted that the plaintiffs were unaware of the beam's destruction until after it had been destroyed because of their hospitalizations.
"Despite the obvious impossibility of the plaintiffs requesting the preservation of the I-beam before it was destroyed, the majority faults them for their failure to satisfy their strict 'burden of establishing all elements of their spoliation claims,'" Kilbride wrote.
He added that "This court has never construed the plaintiffs' burden in such an unjust and unyielding manner, and it is particularly inappropriate under the unique factual circumstances of this case."
The citation for the case is Terry Martin, et al., v Keeley & Sons, 2012 IL 113270.
According to the clerk's office, St. Louis attorney Debbie Champion and Belleville attorney Russell Scott represented Keeley.
Columbia attorney Anthony P. Gilbreth and Belleville attorney Georgiann Oliver represented the plaintiffs.
Editor's note: This story has been updated. The Record had previously incorrectly identified plaintiff and defense attorneys, and regrets the errors.