A Doll's House of Cards: Wanton Laptop Destruction Leads to Sanctions

What happens when Nineteenth Century dolls meet Twenty-First Century litigation? Sometimes - sanctions! Kvitka v. The Puffin Co, LLC, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11214 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 13, 2009) reminds us that the failure to preserve relevant ESI can mean disaster in any litigation. Although few of us would fail to recognize the red flags posed by Ms. Kvitka's behavior in this case, it bears repeating that even the inadvertent failure to preserve ESI can fatally compromise an otherwise-valid claim or defense, even in a doll-sized case.

Nancy Kvitka had advertised her antique bisque-headed dolls in the magazine Antique Doll Collectors, published by Puffin Company, LLC, since the magazine's first issue in 1998.  In August 2005, the magazine notified Ms. Kvitka that it would no longer publish her advertisements because of a large number of complaints about her business practices, including her disparagement of other advertisers and misleading advertisements.

 

Upset, Ms. Kvitka sent a letter back, intimating that forged or altered emails had led to the dispute. When Ms. Kvitka threatened litigation, Defendants notified Ms. Kvitka that Puffin had a file containing several emails written by Ms. Kvitka disparaging its other clients. Defendants' counsel also sent a letter to counsel for Ms. Kvitka reminding them that Ms. Kvitka's computer - and, in particular, the hard drive and the email messages contained there - needed to be preserved as potential evidence in the threatened litigation. "As you know," the letter warned, "emails can be deleted, but they cannot be erased."

 

Ms. Kvitka filed suit in Pennsylvania state court in January of 2006. She later claimed that, shortly after filing the state court litigation, she began having problems with the laptop she presumably used to send the offending emails. The laptop was "doing wonky things, ridiculous things," she said, and "it was difficult to receive emails, it was difficult to send emails..."  Nonetheless, after she ordered a new laptop, she successfully received email confirmation of that order on the old laptop, and forwarded that email confirmation to her computer technician on that old laptop. Hmmm.

 

Once her computer technician set up the new laptop, Ms. Kvitka THREW THE OLD LAPTOP IN THE TRASH.   (I guess she couldn't pull a Torvald and burn it?)  Mere days later, the court inquired about the status of the original emails Ms. Kvitka supposedly sent from the old laptop. Ms. Kvitka failed to inform the court of the destruction of the old laptop, and instead abruptly terminated the state court litigation and refiled her claims in federal court.

 

Ms. Kvitka successfully concealed the fate of her old laptop until January 2008, when Defendants moved for an order of inspection of her new laptop. She then claimed that, although she had not deliberately transferred any data between laptops, "some" emails had mysteriously made their way from the old laptop to the new laptop, while others had just as mysteriously disappeared forever.

  

Although such magical things may happen in dolly-land, they don't happen in the real world of ESI, and the court wasn't buying it either. Finding that Ms. Kvitka had acted in bad faith and "with the greatest degree of fault" in destroying her old laptop, the court imposed sanctions for the intentional spoliation of evidence, including dismissal of Ms. Kvitka's claims and an adverse inference instruction on Defendants' cross-claims.

 

Naturally - and much like your dear blogger - the court couldn't resist quoting Ibsen. Noting with dismay Ms. Kvitka's many implausible attempts to conceal her malfeasance, the court counseled her that "[m]any a man can save himself, if he admits he's done wrong and takes his punishment." (I was hoping for "it would be the greatest miracle of all if you avoided sanctions here, lady.")

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dell gx620 - July 5, 2009 6:44 AM

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