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Woman dies in home fire, Allstate investigates and destroys evidence: court rules no claim against Allstate

The Estate of Lillian Teel sued Lillian's landlord and Allstate after Lillian died in a home fire.  They alleged that Allstate sent an inspector to the apartment, without notice to the Teels, and that its inspector altered the scene, removing certain items that had the effect of destroying evidence of the fire's cause and origin.  When the Teels learned of Allstate's destruction or "spoliation" of evidence, they joined Allstate in their suit against the landlord, whom they claimed had not maintained reasonably safe premises.

Henry Saad--"judge for the insurer"--and one other Court of Appeals judge held that the Teels could not sue Allstate for negligently or intentionally destroying evidence.  They held that Allstate owed no duty to preserve evidence or to act reasonably when investigating the fire scene.  The held that Allstate owed no duty to the victim's family to inform the victim that they would be entering the scene, disturbing evidence and potentially destroying it.  The judges' sole concession to Allstate's stupid, illegal and self-serving behavior was to suggest that the family may have other remedies in their case against Allstate's insured.

At this point, no decision by Saad in favor of an insurance company is a surprise, but given the nature of Allstate's misconduct, it is a surprise that another judge would agree with his anti-victim sentiments.  If the Teels had hired an investigator who had done the same thing, it is likely that their wrongful death claim would have been dismissed as a result:  given that Allstate is the "real party in interest" in a claim against the landlord, it does in fact owe a special duty to the fire victims and it should not be allowed to escape the direct consequences of its own mis-deeds.

The Saad-Servitto opinion concedes that "preservation of evidence is a compelling policy consideration and that the destruction of crucial evidence may undermine the fairness of an underlying lawsuit, and the justice sought to be achieved."  Nevertheless, the judges offer the opinion that it is up to someone else to punish Allstate's behavior, and that a court should not act to protect these compelling policy considerations...and justice itself.  We could not disagree more vehemently and we find this to be another example of a double-standard imposed on injury victims:  insurers get away with misbehavior that would be punished if engaged in by the agent of an innocent victim, with the offered justification being a policy of deference to someone else to enact fair rules.  If courts won't protect the pursuit of justice and the preservation of evidence, then the basic function of the court is compromised.  We expect this kind of double-talk and a failure to get to the bottom of an issue of basic fairness from courts in Iran, not from our own judges.

A thoughtful dissent was written by Judge Alton Davis, who would hold Allstate directly responsible for its misconduct.  The case is Estate of Teel vs. Meredith and Allstate.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
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Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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