Defendants sued in state court in New Mexico personal injury cases will often prefer to litigate in federal court.  Under some circumstances, defendants can successfully remove cases filed by plaintiffs in state court, thereby changing the plaintiffs’ chosen forum.  But this is not always the case because federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction.  In a recent ruling, a New Mexico federal district court remanded a case that defendants removed to the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico back to the state court in which the plaintiff had filed it, the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe County, New Mexico.

The case followed a fatal car accident.  According to the district court’s ruling, a man had allegedly sold his house in Arizona and was driving in New Mexico on his way to his father’s home in Wisconsin at the time of the accident.  His intention was to relocate his family to live with his father, and so the family came with its belongings.  He was driving a pickup truck and pulling another.  His wife and children followed in a U-haul truck rented for the move.  A tire failed on the truck he was towing, causing him to lose control of the truck he was driving, which crossed the median and rolled over.

After the person died from the injuries he suffered in the accident, a personal representative of his estate sued two companies on the basis that they had sold the decedent defective tires.  The lawsuit alleged causes of action for violations of New Mexico’s Unfair Practices Act, and for strict products liability, negligence, and breach of warranty.  The plaintiff sought a recovery of damages, including punitive damages in a complaint filed in New Mexico state court.  The defendants removed the case to federal court.  Under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1), removable cases include civil actions between citizens of different states where the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.

Hedonic damages are a measure of damages recognized by New Mexico personal injury law.  They are meant to provide compensation for the pleasure of being alive.  Following a deadly collision between the driver of a motorcycle and the driver of a car, a New Mexico federal magistrate judge decided to admit qualitative expert testimony on hedonic damages and exclude expert testimony quantifying hedonic damages.

The case arose after a person riding his motorcycle collided with a person driving a car, who turned in front of the motorcycle.  The collision, which took place in Grants, New Mexico, resulted in the death of the driver of the motorcycle and the filing of a wrongful death lawsuit.  The plaintiffs were the personal representative of the wrongful death estate of the deceased motorcyclist and relatives of the deceased.  The defendants were the personal representative of the estate of the driver of the car that collided with the motorcyclist and an automobile insurance company.

The plaintiffs wished to introduce at trial testimony from an economist concerning the value of economic losses resulting from the death of the motorcyclist, including lost earning capacity and loss of household services.  The plaintiffs also sought to introduce at trial the economist’s testimony as to hedonic damages.  The defendants sought to exclude any expert testimony regarding hedonic damages.

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A New Mexico federal Magistrate Judge recently recommended denial of a construction company’s motion to dismiss or stay a suit by the construction company’s insurer.  The insurance company had sued in New Mexico federal court seeking a declaration that it was not obligated to cover a lawsuit against the construction company in New Mexico state court for personal injuries and property damage.

The state court lawsuit was based on the construction company using the services of an insulation and fireproofing contractor to install Icynene SPF in a custom built home.  After the Icynene SPF was installed and homeowners moved in, the homeowners complained that the product was causing noxious and harmful fumes, gases and odors to fill the house.  The homeowners submitted a demand letter to the construction company, and its insurance company retained counsel to represent the construction company.  The homeowners then sued the Icynene SPF manufacturer, the insulation and fireproofing contractor that had installed it and the construction company in the Thirteenth Judicial District of New Mexico.

A few months later the construction company’s insurer filed a complaint in federal court pursuant to the Declaratory Judgment Act.  The insurance company sought a declaration that the allegations in the complaint brought in state court by the homeowners against the construction company were not covered by the construction company’s insurance policy.  The homeowners answered the complaint and the construction company moved to dismiss or, in the alternative, to stay proceedings.

A recent New Mexico federal court order (Arispe v. Allsup’s Convenience Stores, Inc.) instructed the parties before the court to engage in a settlement conference on December 14, 2018 at the federal courthouse in Roswell, New Mexico, and included multiple requirements.  The order specifies what the parties are to do in a manner likely to either cause a settlement of the case or bring the case much closer to trial-readiness.  This is helpful from the plaintiff perspective because defendants often employ delay tactics that can be very frustrating. If you have questions about legal matters of this nature, contact a New Mexico personal injury attorney.

The order was entered on October 30, 2018, thereby giving the parties a month and a half to prepare for the settlement conference.

Among the requirements of the order, which was entered by a New Mexico federal magistrate judge is that the parties or a designated representative of the parties other than counsel, having full authority to resolve the lawsuit, must attend the settlement conference.  Counsel trying the case were also required to attend.  The plaintiff was ordered to serve on the defendant by November 27, a brief summary of the evidence and principles allowing it to establish liability, a brief explanation of why damages or other relief would be warranted and an itemization of damages, and a settlement demand.  The defendant was ordered to serve on the plaintiff, by December 4, any points in the plaintiff’s letter with which the defendant agreed, any points in the plaintiff’s letter with which the defendant disagreed, with references to evidence and supporting legal principles, and a counteroffer.  The parties’ letters were to be limited to a maximum length of five pages, and counsel was ordered to ensure that each party read the other side’s letter prior to the settlement conference.

In a recent case, an insurance company brought an action in a New Mexico state court, the Second Judicial District Court, County of Bernalillo, seeking a declaration that its insured was not entitled to uninsured/underinsured (UM/UIM) coverage for any injuries or other damages resulting from a 2015 car accident.  The insured filed an answer and also asserted a counterclaim for personal injuries, to recover uninsured motorist benefits, for insurance bad faith and for violations of the Unfair Claims Practices Act.

People who have suffered personal injuries following a New Mexico car accident will often prefer to proceed with litigation in New Mexico state courts in the hopes of advancing a case past motion practice and towards trial.  Insurance companies will often prefer to proceed in federal courts, where they hope to bring successful motions to dismiss or for summary judgment, and avoid trial.  In this case, the insurance company filed a notice of removal, seeking to invoke the federal court’s jurisdiction and the insured driver successfully challenged the removal, resulting in the case being remanded to New Mexico state court.

The declaratory judgment by the insurance company and counterclaim by the insured driver arose from a four-car collision that occurred in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Allegedly a vehicle struck the car in front of it, causing a series of collisions until ultimately the insured’s car, which was the front vehicle in the chain, was struck from behind.  The driver who caused the accident allegedly fled the scene and it was unknown whether that driver had liability insurance.  The insured driver filed a claim under his insurance company policy for personal injuries and damages related to the collision, which his insurance company denied on the basis that he had rejected UM/UIM coverage.

Typically contracts are enforced as per their terms.  In a case decided by the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, the court held that an insurance policy provision limiting a plaintiff’s time to bring an action to three years from the date of her New Mexico vehicle accident was unenforceable.  At issue was a claim under an insurance policy issued by an Ohio insurance agent to a driver who lived in Ohio at the time the policy was issued to her.  A few months later the driver was involved in a car accident in Taos, New Mexico.  She settled with the insurer of the driver of the other car involved in the accident and then submitted a claim for underinsured motorist coverage to her insurer.  Based on a provision of the insurance policy, her insurer took the position the claim was untimely because it had been brought more than three years after the date of the accident with respect to which insurance benefits were claimed.

The driver then sued her insurer in New Mexico state court, bringing a complaint for declaratory judgment, breach of contract and negligence.  The defendant insurance company removed the insured plaintiff’s action to federal court.  The parties filed cross motions for declaratory judgment, which the court construed as motions for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claim for declaratory judgment.

The plaintiff’s chief argument was that the three year time to sue provision for UM claims in the insurance contract violated New Mexico public policy, thereby precluding application of Ohio law and rendering the provision invalid and unenforceable.  She sought application of New Mexico’s six year statute of limitations for asserting UM claims.  The defendant sought application of the three year limit under Ohio law, arguing it did not violate New Mexico public policy.

The United States District Court for the District of New Mexico recently handed down an opinion dismissing claims by a New Mexico State Police trooper for failure to keep premises safe.  The Court interpreted New Mexico’s “firefighter’s rule” as also applying to claims brought by law enforcement officers.

The plaintiff had alleged as part of a complaint filed in state court that, during the course of executing a warrant, he was shot and critically wounded due to the failure of a property management company to keep its premises safe.  The plaintiff sought to hold the defendant liable for damages sustained after he was shot on the basis that the defendant was aware that the shooter was not an authorized resident, of his frequency on the premises, of his residency, and of his violent nature and criminal record.  According to the complaint, the defendant had previously removed the man from its property.

The defendant responded to the complaint by removing it to federal court and filing a motion to dismiss based on the “firefighter’s rule.”  The plaintiff opposed dismissal.  Pursuant to the standard for considering a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court was to accept the allegations in the complaint as true, view the allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff’s favor.  The Court was to then consider whether the plaintiff’s claims were facially plausible, meaning whether the facts pleaded in the complaint could allow the court to draw reasonable inferences that the defendant could be held liable for the misconduct alleged.  After reciting the standard for assessing motions to dismiss, the Court concluded that the complaint failed to allege facts sufficient to state a plausible claim for relief.

The United States District Court for the District of New Mexico recently handed down an opinion dismissing a claim for punitive damages brought in connection with a personal injury case.  The plaintiffs had filed a complaint against the defendant’s insurer after a trial in which the plaintiffs had prevailed.  The plaintiffs brought their post-trial complaint in New Mexico state court under the New Mexico Unfair Claims Practices Act (“UCPA”), seeking to recover damages, including punitive damages, attorney’s fees, and other costs.  The defendant insurance company removed the case to federal district court and successfully argued that the damages available to the plaintiffs under the UCPA did not include punitive damages.

Allegedly, at the time of the accident that led to the trial, the plaintiffs were in a vehicle that was rear-ended by another vehicle and this caused them to suffer personal injuries and property damage.  The driver of the car that collided with the plaintiffs’ car was insured.  Her insurance company determined that she was at fault and paid plaintiffs for property damage.  The insurer refused to pay for personal injuries that the plaintiffs documented with materials, including medical records and bills.  The insurer then offered to settle for an amount that the plaintiffs rejected on the basis that it was less than the amount they believed they were owed.  After the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the driver of the car and her insurer, the parties engaged in a mediation.  The plaintiffs purportedly offered to settle their claims for $40,000 and the insurance company was willing to pay $16,000.  No settlement was achieved and the case went to trial.  Following the trial the jury found the driver that rear-ended the plaintiffs to be 100% at fault for the car accident and awarded the plaintiffs $100,000.

The plaintiffs then sued the insurance company for refusing to settle their personal injury claims sooner, alleging that this was in keeping with a policy and practice of the insurance company to refuse to settle or offer only unreasonably low settlements to people seeking recoveries for injuries arising from low speed accidents.  The plaintiffs based their claims on the UCPA.  The insurance company moved to dismiss the punitive damages claim asserted in the plaintiffs’ complaint on the basis that the UCPA allows for recovery of actual damages, but not punitive damages.  The plaintiffs asserted that the UCPA did not expressly preclude the award of punitive damages, and pointed to statutory language suggesting recoveries under the UCPA for punitive damages are available in addition to state common law and statutory recoveries.

Recently, the Court of Appeals of the State of New Mexico upheld a jury’s verdict and the denial of a defense motion for a new trial or a remittitur of the damages awarded by the jury.  The appellate court declined to use mathematic ratios as the basis for reversing a jury award, and also affirmed the award to the plaintiffs of prejudgment interest.

The trial underlying the appellate ruling occurred following a tragic accident on the interstate highway between Las Cruces and Deming, New Mexico.  A FedEx combination tractor-trailer vehicle driven at a speed of 65 miles an hour struck a small pickup truck that was stopped or barely moving.  There were multiple fatalities.  The driver of the tractor-trailer was killed. The driver of the pickup truck was also killed together with her four year old daughter; that driver’s nineteen month old son was seriously injured.

The husband of the woman driving the pickup truck that was struck sued individually, and as personal representative for his daughter and next friend for his son.  He also asserted claims for personal injury and wrongful death.  The father of the woman driving the pickup truck sued, as her personal representative, for wrongful death.  Together with his wife he also asserted claims via intervention for loss of consortium resulting from the death of their daughter.  FedEx stipulated prior to trial that it would pay for damages attributable to FedEx and the other named defendants.  Following the trial, the jury awarded compensatory damages in excess of $165 million in favor of the plaintiffs.  The jury awarded no punitive damages.

A plaintiff injured in a New Mexico car accident who sues to recover damages for personal injuries often can assert causes of action based on multiple theories of recovery.  Under some circumstances, a defendant can successfully move to bifurcate the causes of action.  The consequences will depend on what stage the litigation is in when bifurcation is sought and can result, for example, in the litigation being split up so that discovery proceeds with respect to one or more causes of action while being stayed with respect to other causes of action.

In a recent case, the plaintiff asserted causes of action against an insurance company, which included breach of the underinsured motorist coverage provisions of the contract he had entered into with the insurance company that provided him car insurance, plus alleging bad faith.  The insurance company filed a successful motion to bifurcate the cause of action for denial of underinsured motorist coverage under the insurance contract from extra-contractual causes of action, and to stay discovery with respect to all extra-contractual causes of action.

The plaintiff had filed a lawsuit in the Twelfth Judicial District for Lincoln County, New Mexico.  He alleged that a teenager had driven her parents’ car into his truck while talking on her cell phone after rolling through a stop sign, and that this resulted in his truck spinning on two wheels and sustaining severe damage.  The plaintiff also alleged that he suffered grave injuries, which necessitated evaluation and treatment of his chest, hip, back and neck at the Lincoln County Medical Center.  Continue reading