CAN A COURT DRAW A NEGATIVE INFERENCE IF A PARTY DOES NOT DISCLOSE FACTS RELEVANT TO THE CASE, THAT ONLY THE PARTY HAS KNOWLEDGE OF?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Donley v. Amerada Petroleum Corp., 106 P.2d 652 (Kan. 1940).
This case addresses the following issue:
Can a court draw a negative inference if a party does not disclose facts relevant to the case, that only the party has knowledge of?
This case explored the issue of what a court presumes when a defendant does not introduce evidence uniquely within his or her own knowledge or reach. In exploring this issue, the court concluded that the failure of a party to throw light on an issue uniquely within his own knowledge or reach raised a presumption, open to explanation, that the concealed information was unfavorable to him. Id. at 655.
The plaintiffs owned and operated a farm of 253 acres that was used for stock-raising purposes and included a creek known as “Lost Creek.” Id. at 653. The defendants, two oil companies, developed oil leases north of the farm in 1928 and 1929. Id. Prior to 1935, the stock (consisting of thirty cows) used the water from the creek and thrived upon it. Id. However, in 1935, the defendants deepened their oil wells due to the creek being too dry. Id. After the wells were deepened, the creek was never dry and always contained a substantial amount of water. Id. Although the creek was full of water during dry seasons, the deepening of the wells caused the water in the creek to become salty. Id. In fact, the water was so salty that one could see salt deposits along the edge of the creek. Id. As a result of drinking the salty water, the cows became thin and their hair became rough. Id. The plaintiffs were obliged to herd the cattle to keep them from drinking the salt water. Id. In 1937, an inspection was made of all the oil leases that drained into the creek. Id. at 654. From one of these leases, salt water was found running from a tank battery into a branch that ran directly into the creek. Id. From three wells on the other two leases, salt water was piped as to run directly into the creek. Id. Additionally, the inspectors found no dams, ditches, basins, or anything else built to confine the salt water from the oil leases. Id. Evidence showed that the farm was worth $3.50 per acre prior to the pollution of Lost Creek. Id. After the pollution, the farm was worth no more than $2.00 per acre. Id. Therefore, the jury fixed the damages at $1.50 per acre, which on 253 acres amounted to $759 for the two year period. Id.
The defendants argued that the evidence completely failed to establish any connection between the operation of their oil leases and the pollution of Lost Creek prior to 1937. Id. In response to this argument, the court determined that facts were established by direct and positive evidence that salt water had come down Lost Creek in substantial quantities immediately after the deepening of the oil wells in 1935. Id. at 655. Furthermore, the court noted that it was reasonable to conclude that the man-made tank battery and natural drains or sloughs, through which salt water was emptied into the creek, had existed for at least some time prior to the exact dates they were discovered. Id.
Ultimately, the court determined that the question to be answered was how long prior to 1937 had the defendants been emptying their salt water into Lost Creek. Id. The court then acknowledged that the answer to this question was uniquely within the defendants’ knowledge or reach. Id. Therefore, the court concluded that failure to throw any light upon an issue uniquely within their own knowledge or reach raised a presumption, open to explanation, that the concealed information was unfavorable to them. Id. With this said, the court acknowledged that the defendants not supplying any information worked against them in the instant case. Id.