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.

Personal injury plaintiffs can seek to recover compensatory and punitive damages when litigating in New Mexico courts.  Recently, a truck driver and the company whose truck he was driving at the time of an accident on I-40 moved for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of the punitive damages asserted against them.  The federal trial court adjudicating the underlying personal injury case granted the defendants’ summary judgment motion.

The United States Magistrate Judge adjudicating the summary judgment motion began the court’s analysis by observing that the plaintiffs had not responded to the defendants’ summary judgment motion and that, under the standards set by the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, the court could not grant the defendants’ motion merely because it was unopposed. Rather, the court needed to determine whether summary judgment could be granted due to the absence of genuine issues of material fact and the defendants’ entitlement to judgment as a matter of law.

Based on evidence on file with the court, including deposition transcripts, the court reconstructed the circumstances of the accident that was the subject of the plaintiffs’ complaint and the defendants’ summary judgment motion.  According to the court, the defendant who was driving the truck at the time of the accident was driving a commercial semi-tractor trailer truck near Grants, New Mexico.   He had been, according to his deposition testimony, working as a truck driver for nearly 40 years.  On the afternoon of the accident, he was allegedly driving between 5 and 20 miles per hour because he was driving in a construction zone.  The plaintiff, driving a pickup truck, was allegedly driving at a speed of approximately 65 miles per hour, which was ten miles over the posted speed limit of 55 miles per hour in the construction zone.  The right side of the pickup truck allegedly came into contact with the left side of the semi-tractor trailer, and the two trucks veered off causing the pickup truck to be pinned against the left guard rail of I-40.  According to the court, there was no evidence that the driver of the semi-tractor trailer was driving erratically or that he intentionally or recklessly caused the accident; he was not cited for a traffic violation.  The court also explained that no evidence had been presented showing the driver’s employer had been malicious, wanton, or reckless in hiring or supervising the driver.

Litigants in New Mexico negligence lawsuits risk losing or damaging their cases if they engage in spoliation, which is the intentional destruction, mutilation, alteration or concealment of evidence.  Whether and to what extent to sanction a litigant for spoliation is up to the trial court.  In a recent ruling by the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico, the court concluded that dismissal of the plaintiff’s case for spoliation and imposition of other sanctions sought by the defendant were not warranted.

The ruling was made in the context of a lawsuit brought by a company that repaired its concrete pumping truck following an accident on Interstate 40, allegedly caused by the driver of a tractor-trailer.  The plaintiff alleged that the driver of the tractor-trailer that struck the plaintiff’s concrete pumping truck was distracted at the time of the accident by looking in his vehicle’s rear-view mirror.  The plaintiff sought damages in the amount of $26,000 to reimburse it for repairs and also sought to recover lost profits in the amount of $58,000 for the time during which the truck was out of service.

The defendant moved to dismiss the case on the basis that the plaintiff had engaged in spoliation by beginning repairs on the truck on the day after the accident.  The defendant argued that this resulted in allegedly critical evidence relating to liability and damages ceasing to exist.  Alternatively, the defendant asked for the imposition of a sanction less severe than dismissal of the plaintiff’s case.

The United States District Court for the District of New Mexico recently handed down a decision granting a motion to dismiss filed by a truck rental agency in a New Mexico personal injury lawsuit.  The truck rental agency was sued following the alleged collision of a truck rented from it for commercial use with another vehicle.  The U.S. District Court was called on to determine whether there was a basis for a recovery from the agency or the claims asserted by the plaintiff against the agency should be dismissed.  After reviewing applicable law the court dismissed the claims asserted against the agency, leaving the plaintiff free to pursue claims against other parties.

Under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a federal trial court may dismiss all or part of a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.  In this case, the truck rental agency’s motion to dismiss was unopposed by the plaintiff.  As the court explained, although a party’s failure to respond to a motion to dismiss may be understood to signify consent to the granting of the relief requested in the motion to dismiss, the court is obligated to consider the merits of the motion.  In reviewing the merits, the court determined that there were multiple grounds for dismissal of claims against the truck rental agency.

First, the court noted that neither the negligence nor vicarious liability causes of action in the complaint even mentioned the truck rental agency expressly. Under the doctrine of vicarious liability, one party can be held responsible for the actions or omissions of another party, but in this instance there was no basis.   The court continued the analysis, observing that the complaint also did not have factual content from which the court could draw a reasonable inference that the truck rental agency was liable for the alleged conduct.  Second, the court reasoned that the complaint failed to allege grounds for holding the truck rental agency and other defendants jointly and severally liable.  The court explained that, under New Mexico law, joint and several liability applies only (1) when the alleged tortfeasors act with the intention of injuring one another, (2) to vicarious liability, (3) to strict liability, and (4) when there is a sound basis in public policy.  None of these circumstances were presented in the complaint that was filed on behalf of the plaintiff, according to the court’s ruling.  The court further explained that vicarious liability against the truck rental agency was precluded by federal law known as the Graves Amendment, which expressly preempts vicarious liability claims against commercial vehicle lessors.  The Court concluded that the plaintiff’s complaint failed to state a claim against the truck rental agency and granted the motion to dismiss claims asserted against the agency under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

In some New Mexico personal injury cases the plaintiffs can seek to hold multiple parties accountable for payment of monetary damages.  A federal trial court recently handed down a ruling denying a release to a railway after the plaintiffs settled with other property owners.

Litigation followed after a car collided with a cow on New Mexico State Highway 6.  The people who were in the car at the time of the accident and sustained damages sued the partnership that owned the cow and two of the partnership’s employees or agents.  The plaintiffs sued in New Mexico state court and the defendants took the position during the litigation that the cow entered the highway by jumping over a gate owned and maintained by a railway.  The plaintiffs filed a separate lawsuit against the railway asserting that the railway’s negligence resulted in the cow gaining access to Highway 6.  The railway demanded by letter that the partnership sued in the first lawsuit hold the railway harmless and indemnify it.  The railway also demanded that any settlement negotiated with the partnership or its insurance carriers include a full and complete release of the railway.  Counsel for the partnership responded with a letter denying the alleged obligations to defend and indemnify the railway.

The plaintiffs and defendants to the first lawsuit participated in a mediation and arrived at a settlement in the amount of $3 million, to be paid upon execution of a release to be prepared by the defendants.  Disputes arose because the parties could not agree on terms of settlement documents that reflected the agreement reached following mediation.  The railway, which was not a named party in the suit that had been settled but rather to a separate lawsuit, took the position that it was released.  This was based on settlement agreement language contemplating the release of “all named or potential parties to the litigation.”  The plaintiffs asserted the railway was not released.