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.

The United States District Court for the District of New Mexico recently granted a motion to dismiss a cause of action that had been asserted by plaintiffs under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

Res ipsa loquitur is recognized in common law jurisdictions including New Mexico as a doctrine that can help establish negligence when an accident is of a kind that does not ordinarily occur in the absence of negligence.  The phrase comes from Latin, in which it means the thing speaks for itself.

The plaintiffs asserting the doctrine had filed a complaint in the Fourth Judicial District Court, Guadalupe County, New Mexico, to recover damages following a tractor trailer accident.  After the case was removed to federal court, the plaintiffs filed a first amended complaint alleging negligence, negligence per se, and res ipsa loquitur.  They alleged that it was the defendant’s responsibility to manage and control the  truck involved in the accident, that the accident was a type of event that does not ordinarily occur in the absence of negligence in control of the truck, and, that as a direct and proximate cause of the defendant’s negligence, the plaintiffs suffered a loss.

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A New Mexico federal court recently ruled that a homeowner’s insurance policy did not cover a dog bite occurring outside of the homeowner’s premises.  A woman was injured after she took two dogs out for a walk on a leash.  She and the leashed dogs were allegedly attacked outside of their home in Albuquerque by two American Pit Bull Terriers who lived with their owners about 2.7 miles away.  The attack resulted in the woman sustaining bodily injuries and her husband experiencing injury in the form of a loss of consortium.

The injured parties sued their neighbors in New Mexico state court, and the neighbors’ insurance company defended the neighbors under a homeowner’s insurance policy.  The insurance company then initiated proceedings in New Mexico federal court, seeking a declaration that it was not required to defend or indemnify its insureds in that suit, a dog bite case.

To resolve the dispute, the federal court reviewed the terms of the insurance policy at issue and the parties’ competing positions on availability of coverage.

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A New Mexico federal district court recently dismissed a personal injury lawsuit against a foreign car maker for lack of personal jurisdiction.  The underlying case arose after an accident allegedly causing catastrophic physical injuries.  A woman was driving a car in New Mexico when she was struck by another vehicle causing the vehicle she was in to roll.

A lawsuit was brought on her behalf and on behalf of her husband against the maker of the car the injured woman was driving in the First Judicial District Court of the State of New Mexico, County of Santa Fe.  The plaintiffs sought an award of punitive damages based on causes of action including strict products liability, negligence, breach of an implied warranty, and loss of consortium.  The defendant car maker filed a notice of removal, pursuant to which the case was removed from state court to the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico.

Initially the defendant sought dismissal based on allegedly improper service of process and lack of personal jurisdiction.  The defendant then withdrew its argument for dismissal based on improper service, resulting in the question of whether there was personal jurisdiction over the defendant being the sole issue for adjudication by the court.
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The United States District Court for the District of New Mexico recently ruled against an insurance company, and in favor of the wife of a man who was killed when the motorcycle he was driving was hit by a car.  The motorcyclist sustained fatal physical injuries while driving down San Mateo Blvd NE in Albuquerque, New Mexico after the driver of an automobile made a left turn resulting in a collision.  The driver who struck the motorcyclist was insured, and his insurance company provided a defense when the wife of the deceased motorcyclist sued the driver in state court on behalf of her husband’s estate and on her own behalf for loss of consortium. The parties’ settlement talks allegedly hit an impasse when they could not agree on the policy limit of the automobile driver’s insurance policy, which resulted in the insurance company bringing a declaratory action in federal court to resolve the issue.

The parties agreed that the insurance policy had a limit of $100,000 per person and $200,000 per accident.  The insurance company argued that even though the wife of the deceased motorcyclist asserted claims on his behalf as well as on her own behalf for loss of consortium, there was a physical injury to one party only and the so the per person limit applied.  The wife of the deceased motorcyclist asserted in response that there were two bodily injuries, hers and her husband’s, so the higher per accident insurance policy limit of $200,000 applied.

To resolve the dispute over the extent of coverage under the insurance policy the district court applied New Mexico law, which resolves disputes over insurance policies by interpreting their provisions in accordance with the same principles that govern the interpretation of contracts.  The court explained that, under the controlling law, when policy language is clear and unambiguous, courts must give the contractual language effect and enforce the insurance policy as written.

A person whose truck was stolen sought compensation in New Mexico state court from his automobile insurer on the basis that the theft constituted property damage under the uninsured motorist provisions of the parties’ contract.  The insurance company removed the lawsuit to federal court and filed a motion to dismiss, which the court granted.  In arriving at its conclusion that the insured’s case should be dismissed, the court accepted the insurance company’s construction of the uninsured motorist provisions of the contract between the insurance company and its insured.

The federal court deciding the motion to dismiss determined that it was tasked with predicting how New Mexico’s Supreme Court would decide the dispute under New Mexico’s Uninsured Motorist Act.  As a decision had not yet been made on the issues at that level, the federal court looked to legislative intent and rulings by other courts.  It concluded that the legislative intent was to protect the public from culpable underinsured motorists and that the phrases “injury to or destruction of property” and “property damage” do not ordinarily include theft.

The court observed that the insured plaintiff was correct that the New Mexico Supreme Court had liberally construed New Mexico law in favor of insureds.  The court rejected the insured’s position he was covered based on concerns the court expressed, including that accepting the position would in effect add a requirement that the New Mexico legislature could have but purportedly had not enacted – that every automobile liability insurance policy in New Mexico provide coverage for auto theft.
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