But what if the primary evidence, that is, the product itself isn’t available at trial? In Ontario, this situation arose in Stilwell v World Kitchen Inc. which went to trial and was then heard by the Ontario Court of Appeal in August, 2014.
A brief summary of the facts – in the fall of 2000, Lanny Stilwell was hand washing what he claimed to be a Visions Dutch Oven, manufactured by World Kitchen Inc. Mr. Stilwell claimed that the Dutch oven shattered, and he suffered a severe cut to his right wrist, severing an artery, six tendons and causing extensive nerve damage. He was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery, and while he was away his wife disposed of the broken Dutch oven, claiming that they had no intention of proceeding with a personal injury claim at that time.
Unfortunately, Mr. Stillwell never regained the full use of his hand, and started a claim against World Kitchen 16 months after his injury, well within the required time limit. However, the World Kitchen questioned whether their product had actually caused the personal injuries, and invoked the legal doctrine of spoliation as a key aspect of their case. This means that they alleged that the plaintiffs had intentionally disposed of evidence (the broken Dutch oven), and that World Kitchen’s ability to defend itself was prejudiced because that evidence was unavailable. If successful with this argument, the defendant would have established a presumption that the missing evidence would have been unhelpful to the Stilwells.
The court considered Mr. Stilwell’s wife’s intention while disposing of the Dutch oven, and found that it was unfair to presume that Mr. Stillwell and his wife intentionally destroyed the evidence while considering bringing a product liability claim. In fact, the court held that before the argument of spoliation could be made to the jury, World Kitchen would first have to prove the Stilwells intended to affect the litigation.
After 22 days of the product liability trial, the jury eventually decided that Mr. Stilwell had sustained personal injury damages of over $1.1 million, and held the manufacturers of the product 75% liable. While the Court of Appeal overturned a small portion of the damages awarded, the remainder of the original ruling (including the analysis of spoliation) stood. This landmark case confirms the obligation of manufacturers to adequately inform purchasers of the risks of their products, clarifying their ability to rely upon the doctrine of spoliation to avoid what can be significant claims.