Articles Posted in Aggressive Drivers

car accidentThe United States District Court for the District of New Mexico recently handed down an opinion dismissing a claim for punitive damages brought in connection with a personal injury case.  The plaintiffs had filed a complaint against the defendant’s insurer after a trial in which the plaintiffs had prevailed.  The plaintiffs brought their post-trial complaint in New Mexico state court under the New Mexico Unfair Claims Practices Act (“UCPA”), seeking to recover damages, including punitive damages, attorney’s fees, and other costs.  The defendant insurance company removed the case to federal district court and successfully argued that the damages available to the plaintiffs under the UCPA did not include punitive damages.

Allegedly, at the time of the accident that led to the trial, the plaintiffs were in a vehicle that was rear-ended by another vehicle and this caused them to suffer personal injuries and property damage.  The driver of the car that collided with the plaintiffs’ car was insured.  Her insurance company determined that she was at fault and paid plaintiffs for property damage.  The insurer refused to pay for personal injuries that the plaintiffs documented with materials, including medical records and bills.  The insurer then offered to settle for an amount that the plaintiffs rejected on the basis that it was less than the amount they believed they were owed.  After the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the driver of the car and her insurer, the parties engaged in a mediation.  The plaintiffs purportedly offered to settle their claims for $40,000 and the insurance company was willing to pay $16,000.  No settlement was achieved and the case went to trial.  Following the trial the jury found the driver that rear-ended the plaintiffs to be 100% at fault for the car accident and awarded the plaintiffs $100,000.

The plaintiffs then sued the insurance company for refusing to settle their personal injury claims sooner, alleging that this was in keeping with a policy and practice of the insurance company to refuse to settle or offer only unreasonably low settlements to people seeking recoveries for injuries arising from low speed accidents.  The plaintiffs based their claims on the UCPA.  The insurance company moved to dismiss the punitive damages claim asserted in the plaintiffs’ complaint on the basis that the UCPA allows for recovery of actual damages, but not punitive damages.  The plaintiffs asserted that the UCPA did not expressly preclude the award of punitive damages, and pointed to statutory language suggesting recoveries under the UCPA for punitive damages are available in addition to state common law and statutory recoveries.

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 GavelThe Albuquerque Journal ran an article recently about the outcome of courtroom monitoring in New Mexico drunk driving cases, which led to reporting to the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT).  The monitoring of 1,106 cases across six New Mexico counties was part of an initiative by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).  The initiative has resulted in Governor Martinez announcing that the NMDOT will be providing grants in the amounts of $300,000 to the District Attorney’s Office in Bernalillo County and $100,000 to the McKinley County District Attorney’s Office to help fund prosecution efforts against people who drive while intoxicated.  The hope is that additional funding will allow the District Attorneys’ Offices to hire more support staff to help gather evidence, conduct pretrial witness interviews, and coordinate with law enforcement to identify offenders for criminal prosecution and move the cases through the criminal justice system.

The grants were brought about in part because of the rates of dismissals of DWI charges in the six New Mexico counties monitored as part of the MADD initiative:

McKinley County: 48%

Legal News GavelBicycling is popular in New Mexico.  Under state law, drivers are expected to share the roads with bicyclists and to be on the lookout.  Sometimes drivers of cars and other large vehicles are not respectful of bicyclists.  Whether or not a bicyclist has taken safety precautions, New Mexico bike crashes and other accidents caused by a reckless driver can result in serious injuries or a fatality for the bicyclist.

New Mexico has taken steps to improve safety.  The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department, for example, posts answers to frequently asked questions about the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Code and includes some provisions relating to bicyclist safety online.  Among the provisions of New Mexico’s traffic laws are that, subject to certain exceptions, every person riding a bicycle on a roadway shall be granted all of the rights and shall be subject to all of the duties that are applicable to the driver of a vehicle.  This measure reflects the expectation that bicycles on the road be given the same respect as larger vehicles.

There are also provisions encouraging bicyclists to not endanger themselves.  For example, New Mexico law states that no person riding upon any bicycle, coaster, roller skates, sled, or toy vehicle shall attach the same or himself to any vehicle upon a roadway.  Even when bicyclists are not engaging in such behavior, and when bikes have lights, bells, brakes, and other safety equipment, terrible accidents can happen.  New Mexico has recently undertaken an initiative to try to reduce the number of accidents and create a more pleasant environment for people who travel by bicycle.

Hit and run collisions cause serious bodily harm, and the act of leaving the scene of an accident after causing a collision is considered a crime.  Drivers who hit an object, another driver, or a pedestrian but leave the scene without giving them assistance or providing information may be found in violation of the law.  Injured individuals can pursue a civil claim against the driver, if they are later located, and seek compensation for their injuries, emotional suffering, and property damage resulting from the accident.

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Recently, New Mexico legislators are seeking to address what some have called an increase of car accidents and reckless drivers. Addressing dangerous drivers is one purpose of a proposed law that makes hit and run offenses a more severe crime, leading to a potentially longer jail term.  According to the law today, those who knowingly leave the scene of an accident when someone is injured or dies may be charged with a third-degree felony.

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Four year old Lilly Garcia is perhaps the most memorable victim in a road rage epidemic that is plaguing Albuquerque. As citizens we are all witnesses to the aggressive driving that is often the prelude to confrontation. As drivers we all make mistakes, but for some reason a culture of violence has entered our daily commute. Tailgating, speeding and zig-zagging are all symptoms of people hell bent on winning some imaginary driving competition.

A commute on the interstate can be a daunting prospect. Driving at the speed limit and following the traffic rules turns your rear bumper into a magnet for ever aggressive, ill-tempered driver within the City of Albuquerque. Few and far between is the law enforcement presence with the potential to curb the behavior. Lately the drive home has taken on the feel that we are very much on our own against the mad drivers.

I am sure we all remember the group of idiotic drivers who brought traffic to a stop on I-25 while they performed dangerous “donuts” in the middle of the freeway. Predictably an accident was the result.