Little v. Pohanka, 666-2021

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtZIC, J.
Docket Number666-2021
Decision Date05 December 2022


No. 666-2021

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

December 5, 2022

Circuit Court for Prince George's County Case No. CAL19-34071

Wells, C.J., Zic, Ripken, JJ.




This appeal arises from a motor vehicle accident between Carl Little, Jr. and Kevin Pohanka. Approximately two years after the accident, Mr. Little filed this negligence action. The Circuit Court for Prince George's County found Mr. Pohanka negligent and Mr. Little contributorily negligent. Mr. Little appealed, presenting the following questions for our review:

1. Did the [t]rial [c]ourt err by failing to give [Mr.] Little's requested standard jury instruction (MPJI-Cv 1:16) regarding spoliation of evidence
2. Did the [t]rial [c]ourt's refusal to instruct the jury as requested cause prejudice to [Mr. Little] such that it constituted reversible error

For the following reasons, we answer both questions in the negative and affirm the judgment of the circuit court.


On December 28, 2017, Mr. Little and Mr. Pohanka collided in a motor vehicle accident in a car dealership parking lot in Prince George's County, Maryland. The dealership's video surveillance camera recorded the accident. Within a week after the collision, Mr. Pohanka's insurance company, Geico, requested the video footage. The footage was sent to Mr. Pohanka's email, which he then submitted to Geico.

Almost two years later, on October 18, 2019, Mr. Little filed a complaint against Mr. Pohanka, alleging that Mr. Pohanka was negligent in operating his vehicle, and as a direct and proximate result of that negligence, Mr. Little sustained injuries and damages. During a deposition, Mr. Pohanka testified that once he learned of Mr. Little's complaint,


he attempted to obtain the video footage from the dealership but was unable to because they no longer had it.

At trial, Mr. Pohanka presented an oral motion in limine to exclude a jury instruction on spoliation of evidence and preclude Mr. Little from discussing the video footage of the accident. In response, Mr. Little argued that the jury instruction on spoliation of evidence was necessary because the video footage was material evidence that was potentially lost or destroyed. The circuit court denied Mr. Pohanka's motion in limine due to untimeliness and decided to treat the video as an evidentiary issue to be handled during trial.

On direct examination, Mr. Pohanka testified that he submitted the video footage to his insurer, Geico, two years before the lawsuit was filed. Mr. Pohanka stated that he no longer had the video footage because he received it through email and his email storage auto-deletes. At the conclusion of the evidence, the court ruled that the jury instruction on spoliation of evidence would not be given. Because Mr. Pohanka was not on notice to preserve the video footage, the court stated that he did not demonstrate an intent to lose it. The jury found Mr. Pohanka negligent and Mr. Little contributorily negligent, barring Mr. Little's recovery of damages. Mr. Little then filed this appeal on July 2, 2021.


This court reviews a trial court's denial of a jury instruction under the abuse of discretion standard, which involves a three-part test: "(1) whether the requested


instruction was a correct statement of the law; (2) whether it was applicable under the facts of the case; and (3) whether it was fairly covered in the instructions actually given." Adventist Healthcare, Inc. v. Mattingly, 244 Md.App. 259, 282 (2020) (quoting Stabb v. State, 423 Md. 454, 465 (2011)). "If any one part of the test is not met," the court's denial of the jury instruction will be affirmed. Butler-Tulio v. Scroggins, 139 Md.App. 122, 154 (2001) (quoting Hill v. Wilson, 134 Md.App. 472, 496 (2000)).

The standard for reversible error regarding a jury instruction requires a demonstration of prejudicial harm. Giant of Md. LLC v. Webb, 249 Md.App. 545, 572, (2021) (citing Barksdale v. Wilkowsky, 419 Md. 649, 669 (2011)), aff'd, 477 Md. 121 (2021). The appellant must demonstrate both error and injury, and "unless it is perceived that the error cause[d] the injury there can be no reversal merely because there is error." Brown v. Contemporary OB/GYN Assocs., 143 Md.App. 199, 253 (2002) (quoting Harris v. Harris, 310 Md. 310, 319 (1987)).


Spoliation is the "intentional destruction, mutilation, alteration, or concealment of evidence, usu[ally] a document." Keyes v. Lerman, 191 Md.App. 533, 537 (2010) (quoting Black's Law Dictionary, 1437 (8th ed. 2004)). The spoliation doctrine ensures that a party does not "support its claims or defenses with physical evidence that it has destroyed to the detriment of its opponent." Cumberland Ins. Grp. v. Delmarva Power, 226 Md.App. 691, 697 (2016).



When a party intentionally destroys discoverable evidence, courts provide a spoliation jury instruction. Cost v. State, 417 Md. 360, 370 (2010). In Maryland, the spoliation jury instruction states that if a jury finds that a party intended to conceal evidence by failing to preserve it, then jurors are required to infer "that the party believes that his or her case is weak." MPJI-Cv 1:16. If jurors find that a party's failure to preserve evidence was negligent, then jurors "may, but are not required to, infer that the evidence, if preserved, would have been unfavorable to that party." Id. To determine whether spoliation occurred, a court considers four factors: "(1) [a]n act of destruction; (2) [d]iscoverability of the evidence; (3) [a]n intent to destroy the evidence; [and] (4) [o]ccurrence of the act at a time after suit has been filed, or, if before, at a time when the filing is fairly perceived as imminent." Cumberland, 226 Md.App. at 701-02 (quoting Klupt v. Krongard, 126 Md.App. 179, 199 (1999)); Adventist Healthcare, 244 Md.App. at 274.

The first element regarding destruction of the evidence may take place through physical destruction or "alteration or removal of evidence beyond the reach of the court." White v. Off. of the Pub. Def. for the State of Md., 170 F.R.D. 138, 148 (D. Md. 1997) (outlining test for destruction of evidence, which was adopted by Cumberland to determine whether spoliation occurred). There is no factual evidence that Mr. Pohanka destroyed, altered, or removed the video footage. As the circuit court stated, Mr. Pohanka did not own the video footage; instead, he was in possession of an emailed copy


of the video footage. Compare Steamfitters Loc. Union No. 602 v. Erie Ins. Exch., 469 Md. 704, 738-39 (2020) (affirming trial court's grant of spoliation jury instruction because party owned video footage and destroyed it by taping over it after notice of litigation), with...

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