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The U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, one of the federal courts in the state, recently remanded a New Mexico personal injury lawsuit back to the Second Judicial District Court, Bernalillo County, the state court in which the plaintiff had filed her lawsuit. The plaintiff allegedly had suffered physical injuries after slipping and falling at a store maintained by a national retailer in Albuquerque.  She sued in state court, seeking to recover damages based on New Mexico state law, and asserted causes of action including negligence and negligent hiring, training and supervision against the store and people associated with it, among them the assistant store manager.  The plaintiff’s theory of the case was that other customers had told people working at the store that there was a spill but the people working at the store did not clean the spill up, resulting in her falling and getting hurt.

The defendants removed the case from state court to federal court pursuant to section 1332(a) of the U.S. Code, which requires a diversity of state citizenship among the parties and an amount in controversy exceeding $75,000 exclusive of interest and costs.  In support of removal the defendants argued that, although there was not a diversity of citizenship when the presence of all of the defendants was considered, the federal court should exercise jurisdiction because some of the defendants were fraudulently joined.  Based on this argument they sought to have the case proceed in federal court, their chosen forum.  The plaintiff was opposed to proceeding in federal court, and sought an award of attorneys fees and costs for efforts in seeking remand back to state court.

The court’s analysis was unusual because it relied heavily on a line of cases dating back to 1982 for the proposition that all doubts are to be resolved against removal.  More recent case law has been somewhat deferential to defendants, who sometimes prefer to try to win a case via federal court motion practice instead of preparing for trial in state court.   The court rejected the defendants’ position that the plaintiff could not assert claims against some of the named defendants.  The court reasoned it could not say there was no possibility of the plaintiff being able to establish her claims.  Accordingly, the court ruled for the plaintiff and granted the motion to remand the lawsuit back to state court, in part.  The court did not award the plaintiff attorneys fees and costs, concluding the defendants had an objectively reasonable basis for seeking removal to federal court and did not remove the case to prolong litigation or impose costs on the plaintiff.

A recent opinion by the New Mexico Court of Appeals, Salas v. Clark Equipment Company, reverses the district court’s grant of summary judgment to a lumber company that had been named as one of the defendants in the plaintiffs’ personal injury suit.  The plaintiffs/appellants included a widow, children and grandchildren.  They sued the lumber company and other defendants following the death of their loved one, seeking damages based on the decedent having allegedly been exposed to products containing respirable asbestos as part of his work in home construction and as a miner and mechanic.

In 2013 the decedent was diagnosed with lung cancer.  He died later that year.  According to the Court of Appeals, over the course of the several years since the decedent’s passing, there was litigation that resulted in the plaintiffs achieving settlements with most of the defendants.  The lumber company and three other defendants did not settle with the plaintiffs.  They filed summary judgment motions, asserting that they were entitled to judgment in their favor as a matter of law.  After the defendants won, the plaintiffs appealed.

On appeal, three out of four defendants won again when the Court of Appeals upheld the summary judgment rulings in their favor.  But the Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment with respect to the lumber company defendant.

In a recent New Mexico civil case the plaintiff sought to recover damages for physical injuries and post-traumatic stress allegedly resulting from an incident during which he was forcibly handcuffed by a police officer.  The plaintiff’s complaint was filed in state court and included claims under state law for assault, battery and false imprisonment.  Additionally the plaintiff alleged violations of his constitutional rights.

The defendants to the state court action were the State of New Mexico and a police officer.  The defendants filed a notice of removal with the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico, thereby removing the case out of state court and into federal court.  The defendants then moved the District Court for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12.

The federal trial court began its analysis of the relief requested in the defendants’ motion by turning to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8.  Rule 8 requires that a complaint set out a short, plain statement of the claims showing that the pleader, here the plaintiff, is entitled to relief. The court observed that Rule 8 also directs courts to construe pleadings “so as to do justice.”

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A recent ruling by the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico in a truck accident lawsuit allowed the plaintiffs to proceed with some but not all of their causes of action, after the defendants challenged the sufficiency of the plaintiffs’ complaint.

The court’s analysis followed a tractor-trailer collision resulting in an injured driver being transported for medical treatment via emergency helicopter.  Allegedly the police attributed the collision to driver inattention and following too closely, but did not specify which of the drivers was at fault.  The plaintiffs sued the driver, asserting causes of action for negligence and negligence per se.  In the same complaint, the plaintiffs asserted causes of action against the driver’s employer based on legal theories including respondeat superior/vicarious liability, negligent hiring, negligent entrustment and negligent training and supervision.  After the parties had filed their pleadings and before the pretrial discovery process, the defendants challenged the sufficiency of the plaintiffs’ complaint.

When the sufficiency of a complaint is challenged so early on in the life of a personal injury case, the court is required to construe the facts set forth in the pleadings and inferences that can be drawn from the facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing dismissal of the complaint.  The court is to treat well-pleaded factual allegations in the pleadings of the party opposing dismissal as true, and consider whether they could establish a basis for liability.

In a recent case, a New Mexico personal injury plaintiff timely identified his treating physicians as potential trial witnesses.  He did not timely come forward with any retained experts.  According to the court’s ruling, approximately a month after the plaintiff made his disclosures, the defendant, a national retail chain, produced the plaintiff’s medical records.  Although the records concerned the plaintiff’s treatment, the plaintiff did not have the records before the plaintiff obtained them.  The defendant, with the plaintiff’s concurrence, obtained an extension of the defendant’s expert disclosure deadline.

Subsequently, the defendant disclosed a medical doctor as an expert witness, and indicated that the doctor was expected to testify that the slip and fall accident underlying the litigation was not the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries attributed to the slip and fall.  Further the doctor was anticipated to testify that the accident did not aggravate pre-existing conditions suffered by the plaintiff and that the pre-existing factors and conditions were the likely explanations for the treatment and related costs incurred by the plaintiff.  In support of this theory of the case, the defendant produced an expert witness report.  The defendant’s actions put the plaintiff in a bad position insofar as the plaintiff needed relief from scheduling deadlines to come forward with a competing expert opinion on causation.

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Courts set deadlines for discovery as part of the process of advancing New Mexico personal injury cases towards trial.  Sometimes deadlines are missed.  In a recent case brought following a car accident that occurred in San Juan County, the parties were court ordered to disclose experts by March 13, 2020. The court set a discovery deadline of April 13, 2020.  On April 14, 2020 – the day after the close of discovery – the defendant moved the court for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56.  The basis for the defendant’s motion was that the plaintiff was unable to prove causation without a timely disclosed expert witness.  The stakes were high for the plaintiff.  Had the court granted summary judgment to the defendant, the plaintiff would have lost the case on paper and not had the opportunity to present it at trial.

The court denied the plaintiff the opportunity to extend the deadline, after the deadline had passed.  But the court did not grant summary judgment to the defendant due to the lack of a timely disclosed medical expert.

The record before the court, which the parties had presented in the context of the summary judgment motion, included the plaintiff’s testimony that he had experienced no lower back problems prior to the car accident.  He stated that he suffered from “lower back/Hip [injury]; Aggravation of Hernia” following the accident.  The record also showed that the plaintiff visited a hospital on the day of the accident, and had four more hospital or urgent care visits within two months of accident.  The accident was listed as the reason for all five visits.

In a recent ruling, the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico decided to defer to the plaintiffs’ choice of forum.  Two plaintiffs, a husband and a wife, sued a trucking company that the wife had worked for as a commercial truck driver.  The couple also sued in the same complaint a trainer who had worked for the trucking company.  The company filed a motion, opposed by the plaintiffs, to transfer the lawsuit to the Western District of Kentucky, where the company allegedly maintained its principal place of business.  The trainer did not take a position on the relief requested in the motion to change venue as of the time that the U.S. District Court acted on the motion.

Among the orders that a federal trial court presiding over a lawsuit can make is an order transferring venue.  Venue can be transferred to any other district court in which the action could have been brought, pursuant to section 1404(a) of Title 28 of the United States Code.  A party seeking the relief of venue transfer must show that the existing forum is an inconvenient forum.  While a plaintiff’s choice of forum is afforded some deference, there are multiple factors that courts consider when deciding a motion to transfer venue.

Among the factors that the court identified as informing the analysis in this case were witness accessibility, the cost of proving the case, the ability to enforce a judgment if one is obtained in the case, the difficulties arising from the congestion of courts’ dockets, the advantages of having local courts decide questions of local law, and practical considerations that would facilitate expeditious and economical trial of the case.

In a recent opinion the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico denied an insurance company’s motion to bifurcate claims and stay discovery.  Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(b), federal courts have the authority to take actions including ordering separate trials over multiple claims.  The courts enjoy broad discretion with respect to granting or denying this relief and, also, with respect to related requests to stay discovery.

The plaintiff’s car had allegedly been rear-ended.  Her complaint alleged that she had been stopped in traffic when a vehicle struck her vehicle from behind, and that she sustained serious personal injuries as a result.  She sought to recoup damages for medical bills, enduring pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life and loss of household services.

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff could not recover from the owner of the car that had rear-ended her car.  This was because it was not the owner who was driving the car at the time of the accident.  The owner’s mother was driving, and she allegedly had her license revoked prior to the accident for driving under the influence of alcohol and did not have liability insurance.  The plaintiff therefore decided to pursue a recovery from her own automobile insurer, under the uninsured motorist coverage provisions of the insurance policy.

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An accident in New Mexico recently resulted in litigation concerning coverage under an automobile insurance policy.  The facts, as alleged by the parties, are simple and tragic.  Allegedly a woman went to her neighbor’s house to respond to an alarm that had gone off at the house.  Sandoval County Sheriff’s Deputies went to the neighbor’s house as well.  One of the Deputies accidentally ran over the woman with his car when he was leaving, and she died.

In the next year, the personal representative for the woman’s estate sent a demand letter to the deceased’s automobile insurer, seeking a recovery under the underinsured motorist coverage provisions.

The insurance company refused to pay out.  It took the position that the personal representative of the estate of the woman who had been run over by the Deputy could not achieve a recovery under the insurance policy because the estate would be able to recover $400,000, the maximum allowed under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act, from the Sheriff’s Office.  The insurance company’s position was that such a recovery would reduce to less than zero the amount recoverable under the underinsured motorist provision of the automobile insurance policy, which limited recovery to $250,000 less any amount paid by the individual or organization responsible for the accident.

A recent personal injury case discusses how to determine the citizenship of limited liability companies (sometimes referred to as LLCs) when they are parties to litigation in New Mexico federal court.  After a car accident, plaintiffs who were allegedly residents of New Mexico, filed a personal injury case in state court.  The plaintiffs brought the case in the First Judicial District, County of Santa Fe, on behalf of themselves and also on behalf of their minor children.  The defendants were a resident of Texas and a foreign limited liability company that had as its sole member a man who was allegedly a resident of Utah.  The foreign limited liability company filed a notice of removal seeking to proceed in federal court, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico.

The plaintiffs responded by seeking remand of their personal injury case to state court, where they had initially filed it.  In support of their position they argued that the federal court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because there was not diversity of citizenship among the parties to the case.  This argument was based on the foreign limited liability company having hired a registered agent for service of process in New Mexico.  The plaintiffs also sought remand to state court on the basis of judicial economy.  They asserted that another lawsuit brought by different plaintiffs was proceeding in state court against the same corporate defendant based on the same incident. Continue reading