Lips v. Scottsdale Healthcare Corporation – 5/3/2010

May 24, 2010

Arizona Supreme Court Holds That A Third Party May Not Be Held Liable For the Negligent Spoliation of Evidence.

After a failed hip replacement surgery, in which parts of the prosthesis were surgically removed, Plaintiff Monica Lips asked her surgeon to preserve the removed parts.  The surgeon told Defendant Scottsdale Healthcare Corporation (“SHC”) that it was required to retain the parts.  However, during discovery in a subsequent lawsuit filed by Plaintiff against the prosthesis manufacturer, Plaintiff learned that the removed parts were missing.  Plaintiff amended her complaint to include a claim against SHC on the theory that SHC was liable for the spoliation of the parts.  The Superior Court granted SHC’s motion to dismiss, concluding that Arizona does not recognize a claim for third-party spoliation of evidence.  The Court of Appeals affirmed. 

The Arizona Supreme Court likewise affirmed the Superior Court’s order dismissing Lip’s spoliation claims, but vacated the Court of Appeals’s opinion.  The Court first noted that it had previously declined to create a distinct cause of action for first-party spoliation because the additional cause of action is superfluous when a complete remedy may be obtained in the underlying lawsuit.  Additionally, neither Arizona courts nor courts in other jurisdictions have recognized a general duty to exercise reasonable care for the purely economic well-being of others.  Although Lips asserted that she only sought recognition of a limited duty based on the surgeon’s request to SHC to retain the prosthetic evidence, the Court found that a duty of care does not arise merely because one asks for help or unilaterally tells another that such a duty exists.  With respect to intentional, as opposed to negligent, spoliation, the Court noted that every jurisdiction that recognizes that tort requires specific intent by the defendant to disrupt or injure the plaintiff’s lawsuit.  In this case, although the complaint alleged that SHC intentionally disposed of the evidence, there was neither an allegation that SHC did so with the intent to disrupt the litigation, nor facts alleged to support such an inference.  Accordingly, although the Court indicated that it might reach a different conclusion with regards to a claim of intentional spoliation, those facts were not properly raised in this case.   

Justice Ryan authored the opinion; Justices Berch, Hurwitz, Bales, and Pelander concurred.