Readers of MassTortDefense are aware of the significant risks that plaintiff e-discovery tactics pose in product liability and toxic tort contexts. Rather than a device to uncover relevant facts for the litigation, e-discovery often is about plaintiffs’ attempt to find some alleged misstep by the defendant that will bring sanctions.

In multi-district litigation arising out of the manufacture of allegedly defective plumbing fittings, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota recently ordered the defendant to name a witness to be deposed on whether it preserved evidence dating back to its notice of likely litigation, before a putative class suit was filed. In re: Zurn Pex Plumbing Products Liability Litigation, D. Minn., MDL No. 08-1958.

Plaintiffs allege that the defendant erred in its document preservation efforts three years before any litigation was actually filed, claiming that the number of warranty claims to the company somehow triggered a duty to preserve. However, in late October 2007, the parties were ordered to engage in focused discovery on the issue of class certification, and discovery of electronically stored information was limited, absent a showing of easy accessibility at an affordable cost.

Plaintiffs moved to compel a Rule 30(b)(6) deposition and identification of a 30(b)(1) deponent as they sought to depose a corporate representative regarding document retention practices and possible spoliation of evidence. Defendant resisted, arguing that plaintiffs have no reason to believe evidence has been destroyed; the requests are unreasonably burdensome; and the requests violate the prior discovery orders.

The court, however, permitted the deposition limited to determining whether discoverable evidence had been inadvertently destroyed. The court noted that case law requires plaintiffs to designate, with painstaking specificity, the particular subject areas that are intended to be questioned, and that are relevant to the issues in dispute,” but found somehow that plaintiffs had done so by “circumscribing” their request to information concerning the identified risk of litigation for Zurn Pex, Inc. with respect to its brass fittings.

Yet another cautionary tale from the world of ESI.  It is crucial for defendants to retain counsel who can assess and advise on the e-discovery issues.