Supreme Court Summaries
Opinions filed October 18, 2012
Martin v. Keeley & Sons, Inc., 2012 IL 113270
Appellate citation: 2011 IL App (5th) 100117.
JUSTICE BURKE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.
Justices Freeman, Thomas, Garman, Karmeier, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.
Chief Justice Kilbride dissented, with opinion.
On May 29, 2001, defendant Keeley & Sons, Inc., was acting as general contractor for the reconstruction of a bridge over Maxwell Creek on Illinois Highway 154 near Sparta in St. Clair County. Three Keeley employees are the plaintiffs here. They were injured when they fell into the creek after the collapse of a concrete I-beam used to support the bridge deck on which they were standing. These injured employees were unable to prove their claims against the manufacturer of the beam and the designer of the bearing assembly which supported it. They attributed this to the fact that Keeley demolished the beam at the site on the day after the accident. The claim against Keeley alleged negligent spoliation of evidence. The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had been alerted about the accident and inspected the site before the beam was broken up at the spot where it had fallen and left as “riprap,” or large rocks, in the creek. The circuit court found that Keeley had no duty to preserve the I-beam and granted it summary judgment on the claim for negligent spoliation of evidence, but the appellate court reversed and remanded for further proceedings. Keeley appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The general rule in Illinois is that there is no duty to preserve evidence. In this decision, contrary to the view taken by the appellate court, the supreme court found that the facts were insufficient to establish an exception which might be applicable if there had been a voluntary undertaking to preserve evidence. Neither was there a showing of any “special circumstances” which might, alternatively, establish that a duty was owed. The supreme court said that plaintiffs failed to show that Keeley’s mere possession and control of the beam constituted special circumstances giving rise to a duty to preserve it. No Illinois case has held that an employer-employee relationship is sufficient to establish a duty to preserve evidence, and the plaintiffs did not offer a compelling reason why an employer-employee relationship, in itself, is a special circumstance justifying a duty imposed on an employer to preserve potential evidence. Although the plaintiffs argued that Keeley’s status as a potential litigant gave rise to a duty to preserve material evidence, the supreme court rejected this theory, finding that the case law offered by the plaintiffs as precedent is inapplicable here. The question of whether a reasonable person in Keeley’s position should have foreseen that the evidence was material to a potential civil action did not have to be addressed where no duty had first been established.
The spoliation claims cannot stand and the circuit court’s summary judgment for Keeley was affirmed.