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In a recent ruling, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico denied summary judgment to the sole defendant, an out of state tire manufacturer.  The case before the court arose after a tire blow out that allegedly was caused by manufacturing and design defects.  Allegedly after the tire blew out, a tragic single-vehicle accident occurred in which a pickup truck rolled over resulting in several people being injured and one person dying.

As part of its defense, the tire manufacturer unsuccessfully moved the court to enter a partial summary judgment in its favor holding that the plaintiffs could not recover compensatory damages for aggravating circumstances under New Mexico law.

Under New Mexico law, the personal representative of a wrongful death estate can recover compensatory damages on behalf of the estate.  When determining whether it is appropriate to award compensatory damages, a New Mexico jury can consider mitigating or aggravating circumstance attending the allegedly wrongful act, neglect, or default.  While compensatory damages generally are made available so that injured parties are made whole, compensatory damages under New Mexico’s wrongful death statute also further the interest of deterrence.  Compensatory damages in aid of the public policy interest in deterrence can be awarded even in instances where punitive damages cannot be awarded.
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A recent ruling by the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico reflects some of the challenges plaintiffs can encounter when naming a city and its mayor as defendants in a federal complaint seeking recourse for allegedly injurious conditions.

Last November a person filed a federal complaint against the City of Albuquerque and its Mayor, asserting claims for unlawful taking under the U.S. and New Mexico Constitutions and related claims for trespass and nuisance.  The plaintiff’s lawsuit arose from the city’s alleged catch and release of feral cats and kittens as part of a trap, neuter and release (“TNR”) program.  Under the TNR program, the plaintiff alleged, cats and kittens are trapped, sterilized, vaccinated and released.  The plaintiff alleged that, as a result, she and her neighbors and children are exposed to an extreme nuisance, disease, property damage and a reduction in property values, and that the problem is continuing because the TNR program is continuing.  The complaint attracted the attention of local news outlet KRQE, which ran a story reporting that, as of September 2019, 2,100 cats had been picked up of which 1,700 had been re-released.

The defendants responded to the complaint by filing a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).  Under this rule a federal court is to review a complaint to assess whether its factual allegations state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.

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Courts applying New Mexico’s laws recognize the principle of res ipsa loquitor.  In Latin res ipsa loquitor means the thing speaks for itself.  Under this principle, the very occurrence of an accident implies negligence.

In a recent case, one of the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of all claims asserted against it.  Among the arguments made by the defendant was that the plaintiff had not presented necessary expert testimony.  The court denied the defendant’s summary judgment.  After holding a hearing, the court was satisfied that the plaintiff had demonstrated, under the res ipsa loquitor principle, a triable issue of fact concerning whether the retailer had breached the duty of care it owed to the plaintiff.

Allegedly a person was injured by automatic doors when he went shopping at a store operated by one of America’s largest retailers.  The person was using a crutch for balance when he went to the store.  The crutch was hit by the door, ostensibly because an interior sensor on the door malfunctioned.  The defendant retailer did not accept responsibility for the accident and the injured person sued.  The defendant retailer moved for summary judgment.  Having come forward with its own expert the retailer faulted the plaintiff for not coming forward with an expert.

The U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico recently denied a dismissal motion filed on behalf of  defendants including the Santa Fe Public Schools. The plaintiffs had brought a lawsuit in state court based on alleged sexual abuse by their fourth grade teacher. The motion had sought dismissal of a complaint on the basis that the plaintiffs’ claims under federal and state law were time barred.

By the time the court adjudicated the motion to dismiss their claims the plaintiffs were over 24 years old.  The teacher and the school who has been sued removed the case to federal court, and sought dismissal of the claims based on alleged untimeliness.

The court first analyzed whether the applicable statute of limitations warranted dismissal of the plaintiffs’ federal claims.  The court explained that, with respect to the causes of action based on federal law, federal courts apply the statute of limitations and tolling laws of the relevant state.  In this case, New Mexico law provided a three year statute of limitations, and it was clear from the complaint that it was brought after the expiration of the three year period.  Accordingly, the court analyzed whether there was a basis to toll the statute of limitations with respect to the federal claims.  The court concluded that the plaintiffs’ alleged incapacity provided a basis for tolling the statute of limitations.  The plaintiffs had alleged that they had suffered from problems including post-traumatic stress, dissociation and drug addiction.  The court accepted that these allegations plausibly established incapacitation, for purposes of assessing the merits of the motion to dismiss.  The court also explained that whether the plaintiffs’ condition, in fact, incapacitated them was an issue that should be deferred until the parties brought summary judgment motions or tried the case.

Recently the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico was presented with a dispute concerning whether an insurance coverage case presented to it for adjudication should be sent back to the state court in which the plaintiff had first filed the case.  The federal court trial court presented with this dispute ruled in favor of allowing the case to proceed in the plaintiff’s forum of choice.  The court concluded that it lacked jurisdiction and sent the case back to state court.

Underlying the dispute was a hit and run accident.  Allegedly a person was injured when the vehicle he was driving was struck by a pick up truck that did not stop at a stop sign.  The driver of the pick up truck drove off after the accident.  The injured person whose vehicle had been struck in the hit and run accident sought to recover money from the insurance company that insured his vehicle, based on uninsured motorist coverage.  The insurance company refused to pay out after being presented with a police report, medical records and bills.  The injured person, through counsel, filed a case against the insurance company in Bernalillo County.

The insurance company, via its counsel, removed the case the plaintiff had filed in state court to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico.  The removal papers included an affidavit from counsel observing that, in his experience, the type of action at issue involves more than $75,000.  The plaintiff responded with a motion to remand the case to state court on the basis that the amount in controversy was less than $75,000.

A recent opinion addresses whether a company that leases a store is liable for damages in a New Mexico personal injury suit, after a customer is attacked in a parking lot used by the store’s customers.

Allegedly two people were trying to purchase a video game console from an electronic gaming store in Santa Fe, and were asked to leave because they were attempting to make the purchase with a fraudulent credit card.  The man standing behind them succeeded in purchasing a video game console, left the store and went to the parking lot. He sued the company that owned the store after being attacked in the parking lot by the people who had been ahead of him in line at the store, who had been unsuccessful in buying a video game console.

The plaintiff did not name as a defendant to the lawsuit the landlord of the store.  The lease between the owner of the store, a company that the defendant had named in his lawsuit, and the landlord who leased the store its space, a company that the defendant had not named in the lawsuit, provided that the parking lot was a common area to be used by tenants as a common area.  The lease also reserved control of the parking lot to the landlord.

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Sometimes a person is not liable for the payment of damages resulting from an accident.  Even though the person’s conduct was among the causes of the accident, the conduct at issue is considered by a court to not have been the accident’s proximate cause.  A recent ruling by a federal district court granted a defendant’s motion to dismiss New Mexico wrongful death claims on the basis that the defendant’s conduct was not the proximate cause of the death.

Allegedly, a woman who had dogs in her home also had a home alarm system professionally installed.  She asked one of her neighbors to be a back-up contact person with the company that had installed the alarm.  Her neighbor agreed.  Also, she frequently asked her neighbor to check in on the dogs when she was not home.  The neighbor would go check on the dogs when asked.  This was their arrangement.

One day, the home alarm went off, and the company that had installed it contacted the neighbor.  The woman whose house was secured by the home alarm also contacted her, asking that she enter the home and check on the dogs.  She did as she was asked and went to check on the neighbor’s home and dogs.  When law enforcement officers came to the house to investigate, she spoke with a detective.  He asked her some questions.  She walked with him toward the back of a truck when she was walking back to her own home.  A deputy was sitting in the driver’s seat of the truck at the time.  The deputy received a call dispatching him to another location.  While he was driving his vehicle in reverse to head to the destination to which he had been dispatched, he struck the neighbor, who was still on the property of the home with the alarm that had gone off.  She died.

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Sometimes multiple parties can be held liable for the payment of damages in a single New Mexico truck accident case.  A recent case concerns the ability of a plaintiff to name a new party as a defendant in an amended complaint filed years after the initial complaint was filed, and following the expiration of the statute of limitations.

Allegedly, in 2015, a back seat passenger in a truck sustained injuries after the truck was struck by another vehicle.  In 2017, the injured passenger brought a lawsuit in New Mexico state court against the driver of the vehicle that collided with the truck.  He also sued the company that insured the vehicle that collided with the truck.  The insurance company removed the lawsuit to federal court.  The plaintiff then filed an amended complaint in 2019, naming as a defendant the employer of the driver of the vehicle that had collided with the truck in which the plaintiff had been traveling at the time of the accident.

The employer responded by filing a motion to dismiss, asserting that the court should dismiss the employer from the lawsuit because the claims against the employer were barred under New Mexico’s applicable three-year statute of limitations.  The plaintiff argued in response to the motion to dismiss that his addition of the employer as a defendant was timely under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15 because the claims related back to the claims in the original complaint.

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New Mexico personal injury lawsuits often proceed in New Mexico’s state courts.  A personal injury lawsuit can be removed from state court to federal court if it meets criteria set forth by federal law for removal.  It is also possible, in some instances, to remand a case that was filed in state court and removed to federal court back to state court.

A recent ruling by the Chief District Judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico denied the plaintiff’s motion to remand a case that had been filed in state court and removed to this federal trial court.  Allegedly the plaintiff was injured after he slipped on a puddle of oil in the defendant’s drive-in restaurant and fell.  Before bringing a lawsuit the plaintiff tried to resolve the case on an out-of-court basis.  Through counsel, he sent a demand letter to the defendant.  The demand letter detailed the plaintiff’s alleged injuries and damages; they included medical expenses, pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life.  According to the court, the plaintiff’s demand letter estimated the plaintiff’s damages to be $37,659 on the low end and $157,659 on the high end.  The plaintiff also sought exemplary (i.e. punitive) damages.

According to the court, the plaintiff offered to settle his claims for $75,000 and the defendant countered with a settlement offer of $5,000.  The parties were unable to bridge the gap between their settlement offers and the plaintiff filed a lawsuit in state court. The defendant reacted by removing the lawsuit to federal court.  The plaintiff then filed a motion seeking to remand the case to state court, on the basis that the amount in controversy was $20,000.

It is possible to alter the outcome of a jury trial in New Mexico personal injury cases by prosecuting post-trial motions and appeals.  A recent ruling handed down by an Albuquerque federal court reflects the difficulties inherent in winning post-trial motions for judgment as a matter of law or new trial.

In May of 2019, plaintiffs lost a jury trial in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico.  After the jury delivered a unanimous verdict in favor of the defense, the plaintiffs moved for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b).  In the alternative, the plaintiffs moved for a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a).  Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b), the court could (1) allow judgment on the verdict, if the jury returned a verdict; (2) order a new trial; or (3) direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law.  Similarly, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a), the court was empowered to grant a new trial on all or some of the issues.

The plaintiffs contended in post-trial motions that evidence presented at trial showed that the defendant negligently risked his life and the lives of other pedestrians and motorists by failing to seek a Vision Report and presenting it to the Motor Vehicle Department (MVD); failing to report his losses of consciousness to the MVD; continuing to drive although he knew his ability to drive was substantially impaired; and driving without using supplemental oxygen.  After reciting these grounds for relief from the jury verdict, the court observed that they ignored evidence to the contrary that had been presented to the jury for consideration that supported the jury’s conclusion that the defendant had not been negligent.  The evidence discussed by the court included the testimony of the defendant’s optometrist that the defendant’s vision was good enough to drive and that the defendant had filled out MVD paperwork.  By the time of trial the MVD paperwork allegedly could not be located.  The court reasoned that the inability to locate the paperwork did not give rise to an inference that the paperwork had not been submitted to the MVD.  The court also observed that testimony had been presented that the defendant would have had to take a vision exam when renewing his driver’s license one month prior to the accident.