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Ill. SC rules contractor had no duty to preserve I-beam involved in workplace accident

By Nathan Bass | Oct 24, 2012

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (Legal Newsline) - The Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that a general contractor did not have the duty to preserve an I-beam involved in a construction accident.

Justice Anne Burke wrote the opinion for the 6-1 majority which found "no evidence in the record to support the existence of a duty to preserve the I-beam based on a voluntary undertaking by the contractor Keeley & Sons or other special circumstance." The decision affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment on a claim for negligent spoliation of evidence.

The case arose out of a 2001 bridge construction site accident in which several employees of the contractor were injured when an I-beam they were standing on shifted and they were thrown into the creek below. They had been using the unsecured I-beam as part of a scaffold on which they were standing on as they installed hand rails on the bridge.

In addition to the contractor, two Keeley employees, an engineer and a construction superintendent, inspected the site on the day of the accident along with an engineer with the Illinois Department of Transportation. The following day, an OSHA representative inspected the site. All concluded that the beam had rolled over and the rollover caused the accident.

After the OSHA inspector concluded his inspection the day after the accident, the contractor testified that he ordered the beam, broken in half and lying in the creek, to be broken up so the embedded steel plates on the ends of the beam could be sent back to the beam manufacturer for use in a replacement beam and to clear the creek to prevent erosion.

The injured workers filed suit against Keeley, the manufacturer of the I-beam, and the designer of the bearing assembly that supported the I-beam. The claims against Keeley were based on negligent spoliation of evidence.

The plaintiffs alleged that Keeley owed a duty to retain the beam as evidence for potential litigation, and they were unable to prove their claims against the manufacturer and the designer.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Keeley on the spoliation claim but the Illinois Court of Appeals reversed the court, holding that "by preserving the I-beam for its own purposes, Keeley voluntarily undertook a duty to exercise due care to preserve the beam for benefit of other potential litigants."

Dissenting Judge Stephen Spomer contended that Keeley "did nothing more than allow government agencies to inspect its property in accordance with law," and that "[t]o extend the voluntary undertaking exception to [Keeley] under these circumstances is tantamount to a finding that there is a general duty to preserve evidence in Illinois."

The Supreme Court agreed with Spomer in finding no duty. It reversed the appellate court and affirmed the trial court's order granting summary judgment for Keeley.

"The general rule in Illinois is that there is no duty to preserve evidence," it wrote.

Under Illinois law, in order to find spoliation of evidence the Court has to satisfy both prongs of the "Boyd Test": (1) a relationship that created a duty, and (2) foreseeability of litigation involving the evidence.

The Court ruled, "Thus, we need not address the 'foreseeability' prong of the Boyd test, because plaintiffs have not established that a duty to preserve evidence arose under the 'relationship' prong of the test. In the absence of a duty, plaintiffs' and counter-claimants' spoliation of evidence claims cannot stand."

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