funeralRecently, 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.

Legal News GavelA 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

A terrible New Mexico car accident occurred when a tire tread peeled off the right rear tire of a 1993 Ford E-350 Super Club Wagon traveling on U.S. Highway 54 in Guadalupe County, New Mexico.  The vehicle, which was en route from Mexico to Colorado, left the road and rolled over three times. Two of the occupants of the vehicle were ejected and died, another occupant was rendered quadriplegic and died from the injuries he sustained in the accident, and several other people who were in the car at the time of the accident also sustained injuries.Legal News Gavel

A lawsuit was filed against the car manufacturer, the tire manufacturer, and the person who installed the tire on the vehicle in the names of some of the individuals involved in the accident, and through representatives with respect to the other people involved in the accident.  The plaintiffs were all Mexican nationals.  The defendants, also not residents of New Mexico, each moved to dismiss, asserting that there was not personal jurisdiction over the defendants.  The District Court of Santa Fe County, New Mexico conducted a hearing, following which it denied dismissal of the lawsuit.  The defendants then filed applications for interlocutory appeal, which were granted by the Court of Appeals of New Mexico.

On appeal, the Court analyzed whether the defendants had minimum contacts with New Mexico that supported the exercise of specific jurisdiction.  The Court applied the standards of a precedent in which the Court had held that New Mexico courts could properly exercise jurisdiction over a Chinese corporate defendant that manufactured bicycle parts after it placed the allegedly defective parts on the market with the intention that they be distributed and sold in the United States, including in New Mexico.

Legal News GavelA U.S. Magistrate Judge recently ruled in favor of a plaintiff seeking discovery to aid his prosecution of a personal injury case.  The plaintiff had sought to obtain certain information from the defendant Home Depot, including a response to an interrogatory posed to the defendant concerning prior customer claims for injuries that the stores allegedly caused by or involving pallets.  The Court held a telephonic hearing on April 18, 2018 that ran over an hour after reviewing submissions by the plaintiff and the defendant.  Over the course of the hearing, the plaintiff’s counsel agreed to narrow the scope of the interrogatory that was a focus of the hearing, and the Court ordered the defendant to respond to the interrogatory as modified.

The plaintiff, via his counsel, filed a Motion to Compel on May 31, 2018, bringing to the Court’s attention that the defendant had not supplemented its discovery responses to include information concerning previous nationwide claims and lawsuits regarding injuries sustained by the defendant’s customers pertaining to slips, trips and falls involving pallets.  The plaintiff was frustrated because a few weeks earlier during the April 18 hearing the request had been modified to facilitate compliance with it.  The defendant had been allowed to respond with information stored in the defendant’s searchable database and, with respect to claims that had ripened into litigation, the defendant could respond by providing only names of the parties to the filed cases, the case numbers, and the districts in which the cases proceeded.

Continue reading

legalnewsProposed federal legislation could prevent states including New Mexico from regulating the safety of autonomous vehicles.  These vehicles are sometimes referred to as “driverless.”  If the proposed federal laws are enacted, they could limit the role of states to registration and licensing of driverless vehicles and oversight over safety inspections, traffic laws and crash investigations.

The proposed legislation is controversial for several reasons.  On the one hand, building driverless vehicles in the United States could be good for domestic auto manufacturing.  The technology could potentially also reduce collisions caused by errors of tired, distracted or drunk drivers.  Some argue that a patchwork of state regulations could cause delays and complications.  On the other hand, public safety and consumer protection are issues because there is potential for accidents.  To address these important issues, the federal government would need to set enforceable standards and rules for these innovative forms of transportation, including for example, rules with respect to manufacturing.  How long it would take to develop an effective federal regulatory system for driverless vehicles and how a system would work remains to be determined.

Continue reading

Legal News GavelIn some cases, a person who brings a civil law suit can decide whether to assert claims under state law, federal law, or both.  The decision comes with consequences because a defendant may prefer to defend the suit or seek its dismissal in state court under some circumstances, and federal court in others.  In a recent case, the plaintiff filed his complaint in the Eleventh Judicial District of the County of San Juan, in a New Mexico state court.  His claims were based on a traffic stop that occurred in a manner that he alleged was actionable under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act.

The defendants, a group that includes government entities, removed the plaintiff’s complaint to federal district court, asserting that there was federal question jurisdiction, and filed a motion seeking to have the complaint dismissed on the basis of purported failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted.  Instead of filing a response to the motion addressing the defendants’ arguments in support of dismissal, the plaintiff filed a motion to remand the case to state court, where he had filed his complaint and preferred to proceed.

The plaintiff made several contentions in support of remanding the case, including that the defendants improperly removed the case from state court on the basis of federal question jurisdiction because he had not pleaded a federal cause of action in his complaint and that the due process rights referenced in his complaint are rights conferred under New Mexico state law.  The court agreed with the plaintiff that the manner in which he had pleaded his complaint did not transform a state law tort claim into a federal constitutional claim.  The court also rejected the defendants’ argument that the plaintiff’s claims should be treated as federal law claims because he had sought punitive damages that are not available under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act.  The court further reasoned that, even were the court to construe the complaint as raising an embedded federal constitutional law claim, the plaintiff’s right to relief depended on the construction and application of New Mexico state law.  Ultimately, the court concluded it was appropriate to send the case back to state court, where the plaintiff had filed his complaint and wished to proceed, and accordingly remanded to the Eleventh Judicial District of the County of San Juan.

Legal News Gavel
Claims are subject to dismissal through summary judgment when a party can establish that there are no genuine issues of material fact with respect to the claims, and the claims cannot succeed as a matter of law.  A summary judgment motion can seek the dismissal of a complaint in its entirety or be a partial summary judgment motion directed at some of the claims asserted in a complaint.  In a recent case, plaintiffs filed suit against the driver of a tractor trailer and the freight line that owned the vehicle he was driving at the time of the collision with the plaintiffs’ vehicle.

The plaintiffs asserted claims of negligence, negligence per se, and negligent entrustment and sought an award of punitive damages.  The defendants removed the case from the New Mexico state court in which the plaintiffs had filed their complaint to a New Mexico federal district court, and they filed a motion for partial summary judgment with respect to the plaintiffs’ second amended complaint.  The defendants asserted that the record supported the dismissal of the negligent entrustment and punitive damages claims as a matter of law.  The plaintiffs did not file a response in opposition.  Still, the Court had to assess whether the defendants had met their initial responsibility of demonstrating a basis for partial summary judgment.

The Court studied the evidence that the defendants had submitted and their arguments.  With respect to the negligent entrustment claim, the defendants had argued that the record did not support liability because the undisputed facts showed that the driver did not have a record of citations for traffic violations and had passed a drug test on the day of the accident.  The record before the Court also showed that the driver had only been in one accident previously, in which a vehicle had backed into the truck he was driving, had conducted a pre-trip inspection of the tractor trailer, was not using his cell phone at the time of the accident, was driving with low beams, was not exceeding the speed limit, and had tried to avoid the plaintiffs’ vehicle before the collision occurred that had given rise to their alleged damages.  With this record before it, the Court accepted the defendants’ contention that there was no evidence presented that the owner of the truck knew or should have known that the driver would operate it in a manner that would create an unreasonable risk of harm to others.  As a result, and without evidence to counter by the plaintiffs, the Court was amenable to granting the defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment with respect to the negligent entrustment claim.

Legal News GavelInsurance companies sometimes try to change the forum for lawsuits filed against them or their insureds as part of their litigation strategy.  A common strategy is to try to remove a lawsuit filed by plaintiffs against them in state court to federal court and then make a motion to dismiss in order to try to stop the case from proceeding through the discovery process and to trial.

Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and are restricted from adjudicating, for example, state law claims asserted by citizens of one state against citizens of another state.  In a recent case, an insurance company removed a state court lawsuit against it, its law firm, and one of the attorneys working for the law firm from state court, where the insureds had filed it, to federal court.

The insureds had filed suit in New Mexico state court, alleging causes of action including violations of the Trade Practices and Frauds Article (TPFA) of the New Mexico insurance code, stemming from interactions with the lawyers acting for the insurance company.  They alleged that they believed themselves to be victims of a profit-maximizing scheme designed to coerce them to settle for a fraction of what their insurance claims were worth arising from the stealing and burning of a van and the removal of tools and equipment from the van.

Continue reading

Legal News GavelNew Mexico’s Department of Transportation recently held a summit on autonomous vehicles.  The theme was that New Mexico needs to be ready. Semi-autonomous vehicles are operated with a driver behind the wheel.   Some semi-autonomous vehicles are already on the roads.  Fully autonomous vehicles are anticipated to hit roads in the coming years – cars and trucks that are fully automated and driverless. This raises concerns about what happens after a New Mexico car accident involving an autonomous vehicle.

The summit on autonomous vehicles followed a fatal car accident in Tempe, Arizona.  Tragically, a woman was struck and killed in Tempe while she was crossing the street.  She was hit by another woman who was behind the wheel of a self-driving Uber.  Tempe police had stated that the car did not slow down before striking the pedestrian, which has since been confirmed by review of video footage of the accident.  The Uber accident in Tempe is alarming because either the pedestrian who was struck was not recognized by the car’s autonomous system as a pedestrian, or, if she was, something went wrong applying the brakes.  The National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Safety Administration investigated the accident to try to figure out what happened.

Among the technological innovations discussed at the summit on autonomous vehicles organized by the Department of Transportation were the five levels of automation.  Level 1 vehicles have automatic braking and cruise control.  Level 2 vehicles assist with steering and acceleration.  At Level 3, conditional automation, a driver is still needed and is expected to jump in and take over under certain circumstances.  At Level 4, a vehicle can drive itself under some conditions, without input from a driver.  At Level 5, a vehicle can drive itself under all conditions and may not include the option to let a driver take over.

Legal News GavelThe United States District Court for the District of New Mexico has handed down a ruling denying a motion to dismiss a New Mexico personal injury complaint alleging claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act.  The court rejected the defendant’s contention that a waiver signed by the plaintiff should result in the dismissal of her claims.

The plaintiff in this case was a civilian who was injured at a U.S. Air Force Base.  According to the court’s ruling, she had gone there with a group of her coworkers to participate in team building exercises.  One of these exercises involved rappelling down a tower. The plaintiff and her coworkers were each handed a waiver of liability form, with the Sergeant handing them out explaining that the waivers were documents “relieving the Air Force from responsibility for injuries and that the participants had to understand they were taking a risk by rappelling.”

The plaintiff did not recall a discussion of specific risks, including, for example, falling or the safety line not working.  She signed the waiver, took some training after explaining she had no experience, and ascended to the top of the rappelling tower.  She fell and was thereafter moved and assessed.  One of her coworkers then took her to the hospital in an ambulance.