The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) sued a security company and others based upon a fire that apparently was started by a cigarette carelessly thrown into a wastebasket. During discovery defendants requested the surveillance video. Plaintiff had reviewed the video and apparently had deleted portions of it considered unnecessary. Defendants’ motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3126 (spoliation of evidence) was granted and the complaint was dismissed. The First Department determined dismissal of the complaint was too severe a penalty and ordered that plaintiff be precluded from using the video as evidence. The court explained:
As a threshold issue, NYCHA unconvincingly argues that no sanction is appropriate because litigation was not pending when the video was edited. For a spoliation sanction to be applicable, there need only be the “reasonable anticipation of litigation” … . The day after the fire, [NYCHA] was already viewing and editing the video, identifying images he thought would be relevant to determine how the fire started. These actions indicate that NYCHA may have been contemplating litigation, or at least wanted to identify the culpable person, and therefore the records were destroyed with a “culpable state of mind” … . For the purposes of a spoliation sanction, “[a] culpable state of mind . . . includes ordinary negligence”… .
Although NYCHA should be sanctioned for the destruction of portions of the surveillance video, the dismissal of the complaint was too harsh a remedy. Dismissing an action is “usually not warranted unless the evidence is crucial and the spoliator’s conduct evinces some higher degree of culpability” … . It is a “drastic sanction” and should only be done when a party has destroyed key evidence… .
The record does not support defendants’ contention that dismissal is required because the unredacted video is key evidence without which they will be “substantially prejudiced”… . New York City Hous Auth v Pro Quest Sec, Inc, 2013 NY Slip Op 05429, 1st Dept 7-23-13