We have previously discussed a number of issues surrounding premises liability. For example, in the context of snow and ice, classifications of individuals on your property, and doctrines like attractive nuisance. We are now going to dive into some evidentiary issues that may arise in your claim, specifically in the context of surveillance video in a commercial setting.
As the technology becomes cheaper and more readily available, more and more commercial property owners are investing in video surveillance systems. This is for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, it helps with loss prevention (stealing). But, it also is a way for property owners or renters to have an eye in the sky to be able to record certain events. This includes many injuries. This is why we always suggest you assume that whenever you are in a commercial property, you are being watched.
As you can imagine, the proliferation of surveillance cameras has significantly impacted premise liability law. More cameras means more evidence in many claims. Cameras are able to see someone when they fall. They also are able to create a timeline as to a person’s movements, or even look to see what caused the hazard that the person tripped on. As surveillance video evidence becomes the norm, so too do a host of related legal issues. Specially, issues of preservations of evidence including what is known as “spoliation.”
Spoliation (not spoil-ation!) is defined as “the destruction or alteration of evidence resulting from a party’s failure to preserve evidence relevant to a litigation or investigation.” While this could refer to a deliberate and intentional destruction of video evidence, spoliation most commonly occurs when a defendant fails to preserve video evidence that they had notice may relate to a possible premise injury. This is why it is in the interest of any business to have written guidelines establishing the policy for retaining potentially relevant surveillance video.
Upgrades in technology have digitized most surveillance video equipment; however, some businesses may still rely on video cassettes or discs. Regardless of the technology involved, there is still a finite ability to store video indefinitely, even digitally. Most systems will have an automated deletion program that will delete or overwrite videos after a given time. In the old days, a surveillance tape would be re-used, and the old footage destroyed. Now, though cloud storage is seemingly limitless, the cost to keep unnecessary surveilance footage is not in many companys’ budget.
While the law does not require you to incur additional expenses to preserve all video indefinitely, a business is required to preserve surveillance video in anticipation of litigation. In Massachusetts, the duty to preserve evidence is straightforward. The duty arises when a reasonable person knows or should know that litigation is possible and that the evidence might be relevant. Commercial premises often receive notice of an accident, e.g., an ambulance arrives at their property, so claiming lack of notice will usually be difficult to prove.
In order to show spoliation under Massachusetts law, you must show either a negligent or intentional destruction of evidence. Remedies are based on the degree of misconduct of the defendant. The most common remedy for spoliation is a jury instruction from the judge allowing jurors to draw an adverse inference, i.e., you can assume the defendant is hiding something harmful to their case, from the destruction of the evidence.
The need to preserve potential evidence highlights the need to work with an attorney on any potential slip and fall claim. An experienced attorney will contact the defendant business to remind them of their duty to preserve any video surveillance evidence from the time of the claim. Not only does this remind the business of their duty, it also lays the foundation for any future spoliation issues, should they arise.
If you’ve been injured on someone’s else’s property, its important that you find a personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. The sooner you find a lawyer, the sooner he or she can send out a letter that asks that they preserve all videos. This will give you a much better chance of the video not magically disappearing.