When a tipster sent us an e-mail with the subject, “Court awards $700,000+ in sanctions for destruction of FB page,” I thought it sounded like it might be interesting. Because hey, that’s a lot of money.
I didn’t realize it would also be one of the most depressing legal news stories I’ve read since this tragic murder-suicide.
The three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar sanction award was levied against the widower of a woman killed in a car accident and the widower’s lawyer. The ruling was an abrupt table-turn for Isaiah Lester, who had previously won a $10 million wrongful death suit against the driver whose truck overturned and killed his wife.
Keep reading for the depressing details….
In 2008, truck driver William Donald Sprouse pleaded guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter for the accidental death of 25-year-old Jessica Lester. According to a bluntly-written news article from the time of the trial, Sprouse’s “truck rounded a corner on two wheels, flipped and rolled over onto Lester’s car, a crushing sixty thousand pounds landing where Jessica sat.”
Jessica’s parents and her widower, Isaiah Lester, won a massive wrongful death suit in 2010 against Sprouse and his employer at the time of the accident, Allied Concrete Company. A Virginia jury awarded them a massive $10.6 million. Clearly, the family’s wounds were still fresh.
But the courtroom odyssey was not over.
On October 21 (nearly a year later), Judge Edward Hogshire signed a “final order” (PDF) cutting the jury verdict in half in Lester v. Allied Concrete Company and William Donald Sprouse, and penalizing Lester and his attorney, Matt Murray, a combined $722,000 in sanctions:
Whereas, the court, having reviewed the evidence and arguments of counsel and carefully considered the extensive pattern of deceptive and obstructionist conduct of Murray and Lester resulting in the sanction award, finds that most of the substantial fees and costs expended by Defendants were necessary and appropriate to address and defend against such conduct…
Unsurprisingly, the majority of the sanctions will go to the defense’s attorneys at Patton Boggs. Murray is on the hook for $542,000, and Lester owes $180,000.
According to a September 1 order from Judge Hogshire, the spoliation began in March 25, 2009, when Murray received a discovery request for the contents of Lester’s Facebook account. Attached was a photo of Lester wearing a “I [heart] hot moms” t-shirt, and holding a beer can with other young adults.
Murray instructed a paralegal to tell Lester to “clean up” his Facebook page because, “we don’t want blowups of this stuff at trial,” the assistant, Marlina Smith, said in a deposition. She emailed that message to Lester the next day.
On March 26, 2009, according to the judge’s order, Murray came up with a scheme to take down or deactivate Lester’s Facebook account so that he could respond that he had no Facebook page on the date the discovery request was signed.
When defense attorneys filed a motion to compel, Murray instructed Lester to reactivate the account. But in a December 16, 2009, deposition, Lester denied deactivating the account.
Murray is also accused of withholding the email from Smith instructing Lester to clean up his Facebook page when he was ordered to produce it shortly before the trial began. Murray falsely claimed after the trial that the omission was the paralegal’s mistake, according to the court order.
Hey Murray, CHECK YOU FEDERAL RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDURE.
At this point in time, it’s pretty standard for opposing parties to dig through social media in cases like this. “He couldn’t have been THAT sad about his wife’s death. He was wearing a crazy t-shirt and partying with his buddies.”
But destroying and hiding discoverable material is clearly not the way to avoid the issue. Mostly because it’s illegal, but also because it might not turn out to be that big a deal. (E.g., “My client was so distraught, he didn’t know what clothes he was wearing. He started drinking heavily to numb the pain.” Whatever.)
Murray has since left his position at Allen, Allen, Allen, and Allen, the largest personal injury firm in Virginia. Judge Hogshire turned him over to the Virginia State Bar.
Are his days as a licensed attorney numbered?
Lester v. Allied Concrete Company and William Donald Sprouse: Final Order [PDF]
Unusual outcome: $722K in sanctions, juror judges judge [The Hook]
Sanctions: Allied Concrete attorneys want $900K in legal fees [The Hook]
Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He covers legal technology and the West Coast for Above the Law. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or email him at [email protected]. You can read more of his work at chrisdanzig.com.