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The Importance of Candor: Judge Tosses a $21.5M Verdict Over Deleted Emails


A federal judge recently threw out a $21.5 million jury verdict awarded to a man from Springfield, IL who claimed he was injured in an around-the-world cruise in 2011, when the man’s former assistant came forward and admitted the man had intentionally deleted emails that may have been detrimental to his case. United States District Court Judge, Barbara Rothstein ordered a new trial, noting that the assistant’s admission exposed “grave inconsistencies” in the man’s story of dizziness and seizures after an automatic sliding glass door struck his head while aboard the cruise ship.

The injured cruiser sued the cruise operator, Holland America, in 2013, and was awarded $21.5 million in damages; but soon after the judgment, a former personal assistant came forward claiming that she had seen the plaintiff spend several days deleting emails that should have been turned over to Holland America’s lawyers prior to trial.

Judge Rothstein held a hearing last month to address the former assistant’s statements, and found them credible, writing:

“As a witness, [the plaintiff] came across evasive and untrustworthy. He appeared to weigh each answer, not for its truthfulness, but to assess whether it would damage his case. [He] … also seemed to capitalize on his alleged brain injury when it was convenient for him. He was confused or claimed memory loss when confronted with a question or exhibit that appeared to undermine his claims, yet was animated and full of information when his testimony supported his case.”

The former assistant was able to recover some of the emails she had been instructed to delete, and these cast considerable doubt on the believability of the rest of the injured man’s credibility. For example, the man testified he avoided the use of ladders after the accident due to his fear of falling, but then commented in a subsequent email that he was sore after spending most of the day on a ladder using a fire ax to chop ice over the front porch of his house.

Success in litigation is not about lying, hiding relevant information or exaggerating. This case highlights the importance of candor and the role of the judge in our jury trial system. By design, our system includes checks [cheques?] and balances making it hard for people to get away with hiding evidence, bending the truth or lying under oath. While the man is entitled to a new trial, it will be interesting to see if he exercises this right knowing evidence he unfairly hid damaging emails will be considered.

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