SDNY Expands Interpretation of “Possession, Custody, or Control” – Orders Adverse Inference Against Company for Spoliation of Text Messages by Non-Party, Independent Contractor on Personal Phone

In Van Zant, Inc. v. Pyle, et al., 270 F. Supp. 3d 656 (S.D.N.Y. 2017), the Southern District of New York ordered an adverse inference against Los Angeles-based Cleopatra Entertainment LLC (“Cleopatra”), based on the conduct of its independent contractor and non-party to the case, Jared Cohn (“Cohn”). Cohn had been hired by Cleopatra to write and direct a motion picture about the 1977 plane crash that killed two members of the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. During the film’s production, Cleopatra and Cohn enlisted the aid of Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle (“Pyle”), who, along with other surviving band members (and the estates of deceased members), was party to a 1988 Consent Order that set limits on the permissible use of the Lynyrd Skynyrd name; the likenesses, names, and biographical material of its members; the band’s history; and related items. The Consent Order also detailed the respective parties’ rights to royalties from Lynyrd Skynyrd music, merchandise, and other proceeds, and prohibited the parties from “implicitly or through inaction authoriz[ing] the violation of the terms [of the agreement] by any third party.” Pyle initially did not make Cleopatra aware of the Consent Order, but plaintiffs (also parties to the 1988...