A New York federal court issued an important reminder last week that class representatives—who often perceive their obligations as relaxed given the fictional nature of their role—have important product preservation responsibilities that may lead to spoliation sanctions. On April 22, 2020, the Northern District of New York dismissed the claims of a named plaintiff for spoliation when, both before and after beginning the action, he engaged a third-party repair shop to remove parts from his vehicle that were central to an automotive class action alleging that FCA US LLC (Chrysler) sold vehicles with a defect that caused their tires to corrode and deflate.
Plaintiff Hromowyk, one of the two named plaintiffs in Tomassini,v. FCA US LLC, No. 14-1226, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 70683 (N.D.N.Y. 2020), bought a new 2010 Dodge Grand Caravan in 2009. In February 2017—a month before suing—he had his first Tire-Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) unit removed and replaced by a third-party repair shop. Even though he had not yet filed a complaint, he requested that the repair shop preserve the TPMS unit. The plaintiff never notified Chrysler or an authorized dealership of the alleged issue with his TPMS units before suing. After the complaint was filed, the plaintiff had two more TPMS units replaced but did not communicate with Chrysler before doing so.
After learning of the prior TPMS replacements, Chrysler moved for spoliation sanctions. The court granted Chrysler’s motion, holding the plaintiff had a duty to preserve each of the removed TPMS units and that he had intentionally engaged a third-party repair shop to remove the TPMS units. Plaintiff was under a duty to preserve before suing because he admitted he kept the first-replaced TPMS unit based on the advice of counsel and understood its relevance to future litigation. The court then noted that plaintiff had a duty to preserve when the second and third TPMS units were removed because litigation had begun.
In concluding that the plaintiff acted with a culpable state of mind, the court rejected the argument that the plaintiff acted reasonably by removing the TPMS units to ensure the safety of his vehicle. The court also rejected as an ameliorating factor, that the TPMS units were available for inspection. First, the court noted the TPMS units were, at a minimum, materially altered because the third-party repair shop had to use significant force to remove them—at least one unit was damaged during its replacement. Second, the court recognized that the plaintiff purposefully removed the TPMS units, and did so even though he was aware they were the central part of the litigation.
Finally, the court focused on the relevance of the TPMS units to the current litigation and concluded it was perhaps the most important piece of evidence. Given that all elements for spoliation were met, the court concluded sanctions were appropriate because the plaintiff knew the TPMS units were central to the litigation and failed to ever communicate with Chrysler or request a repair of the alleged damaged TPMS units.
Whether a class representative engages in sanctionable conduct by obtaining vehicle repairs from an independent shop or failing to coordinate with defense counsel prior to obtaining repairs arises often in automotive class actions. Given the unique representative nature of class actions, however, such conduct is sometimes overlooked by litigants and courts. Tomassini signals that courts are willing to scrutinize the conduct of class representatives in appropriate cases and that automotive defendants can successfully protect their right to preserve and access important evidence in class litigation.