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Columbia Pictures, Inc., et al. v. Bunnell, et al., USDC C.D. California

The district court granted plaintiff motion picture studios’ motion for terminating sanctions (i.e., a striking of the defenses and entry of default judgment against defendants) based on defendants’ willful spoliation of key evidence.

Plaintiffs had filed a copyright infringement suit against web site operators who provided a search engine for identifying dot-torrent files. Plaintiffs claimed that the defendants engaged in widespread spoliation of key evidence including: deleting or modifying forum discussions that referenced copyright infringement and how to circumvent copyright protection mechanisms; deleting directory headings that contained the names of hundreds of television shows; destroying or failing to provide full user IP addresses so that plaintiffs could determine how many people were downloading movies; and failing to provide the complete names of the volunteer moderators on the grounds that this information was unknown to defendants, even though the defendants mailed t-shirts to some volunteers and took other volunteers to Las Vegas as a thank-you gift.

The court rejected the defendants’ argument that it deleted some of the forum discussions because it assumed the plaintiffs had already viewed the discussions online. The court also found that the defendants lied under oath and tried to influence testimony by their volunteer moderators. The court called the defendants’ conduct obstreperous, found that the spoliation of evidence inalterably prejudiced the plaintiffs’ case, and that terminating sanctions were the only effective recourse. The court concluded “Although termination of a case is a harsh sanction appropriate only in ‘extraordinary circumstances,’ the circumstances in this case are sufficiently extraordinary to merit such a sanction. Lesser sanctions would not be adequate to punish the defendants for the wrongful conduct and ameliorate the prejudice and harm to the plaintiffs.”