Articles Posted in Car Crash

Though parties to personal injury litigation in American federal courts have broad discovery rights, certain materials are protected in the discovery process including those that are subject to the attorney-client and work product privileges.  In a recent case, the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico granted in part a motion for a protective order brought by an insurance company defendant.

The case arose after an insurance company denial of coverage.  A woman was involved in a New Mexico motor vehicle accident with an unknown driver, following which she made a claim with her insurance company for uninsured motorist (UM) coverage.  The insurance company denied coverage, taking the position that its insured was 100% at fault for the accident.  The insured driver then sued for UM benefits and punitive damages and a jury found the UM driver 100% at fault and awarded the insured driver damages.

Thereafter the plaintiff sued her insurance company for breach of contract, bad faith, negligence, and unfair practices for the insurance company’s failure to pay the claim, including paying the jury verdict, and for its handling of the claim through the underlying lawsuit.  The insurance company paid the jury verdict and sought a protective order with respect to discovery sought by the plaintiff.

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The U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico handed down a decision on January 3, 2019 in favor of a plaintiff who was seeking a recovery from her insurance company following a New Mexico car accident resulting in the plaintiff allegedly suffering personal injuries.  The insurance company had argued that the plaintiff needed to prove entitlement to underinsured motorist coverage (UIM) benefits before she could proceed with her other claims against the insurance company.  The court denied the defendant insurance company’s motion for bifurcation, thereby allowing the plaintiff’s claims to proceed forward together.

The plaintiff alleged that she had suffered injuries after her vehicle was rear-ended by another vehicle.  She settled with the insurance company of the driver who had allegedly caused the accident for the limits of that driver’s insurance policy, and then made a demand on her own insurance company for UIM and the insurance company refused to pay.  She then sued her insurance company, asserting two different sets of claims.  She claimed a breach of contract based on her insurer’s non-payment of UIM benefits and breach of the duties of good faith and fair dealing.  These were contract based claims under her insurance policy with the defendant insurance company.

In separate counts, the plaintiff’s complaint alleged extra-contractual claims for insurance bad faith, violations of New Mexico’s Unfair Insurance Practices Act (UIPA), and violations of New Mexico’s Unfair Trade Practices Act (UTPA).   The defendant insurance company moved to bifurcate the trials of Plaintiff’s UIM contract based claims from her bad faith, UIPA, and UTPA claims and stay discovery on those extra-contractual claims “until such time as a jury has found that the Plaintiff is legally entitled to recover benefits on the underlying UIM breach of contract claim.”  The plaintiff opposed.

Defendants sued in state court in New Mexico personal injury cases will often prefer to litigate in federal court.  Under some circumstances, defendants can successfully remove cases filed by plaintiffs in state court, thereby changing the plaintiffs’ chosen forum.  But this is not always the case because federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction.  In a recent ruling, a New Mexico federal district court remanded a case that defendants removed to the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico back to the state court in which the plaintiff had filed it, the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe County, New Mexico.

The case followed a fatal car accident.  According to the district court’s ruling, a man had allegedly sold his house in Arizona and was driving in New Mexico on his way to his father’s home in Wisconsin at the time of the accident.  His intention was to relocate his family to live with his father, and so the family came with its belongings.  He was driving a pickup truck and pulling another.  His wife and children followed in a U-haul truck rented for the move.  A tire failed on the truck he was towing, causing him to lose control of the truck he was driving, which crossed the median and rolled over.

After the person died from the injuries he suffered in the accident, a personal representative of his estate sued two companies on the basis that they had sold the decedent defective tires.  The lawsuit alleged causes of action for violations of New Mexico’s Unfair Practices Act, and for strict products liability, negligence, and breach of warranty.  The plaintiff sought a recovery of damages, including punitive damages in a complaint filed in New Mexico state court.  The defendants removed the case to federal court.  Under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1), removable cases include civil actions between citizens of different states where the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.

In a recent case, an insurance company brought an action in a New Mexico state court, the Second Judicial District Court, County of Bernalillo, seeking a declaration that its insured was not entitled to uninsured/underinsured (UM/UIM) coverage for any injuries or other damages resulting from a 2015 car accident.  The insured filed an answer and also asserted a counterclaim for personal injuries, to recover uninsured motorist benefits, for insurance bad faith and for violations of the Unfair Claims Practices Act.

People who have suffered personal injuries following a New Mexico car accident will often prefer to proceed with litigation in New Mexico state courts in the hopes of advancing a case past motion practice and towards trial.  Insurance companies will often prefer to proceed in federal courts, where they hope to bring successful motions to dismiss or for summary judgment, and avoid trial.  In this case, the insurance company filed a notice of removal, seeking to invoke the federal court’s jurisdiction and the insured driver successfully challenged the removal, resulting in the case being remanded to New Mexico state court.

The declaratory judgment by the insurance company and counterclaim by the insured driver arose from a four-car collision that occurred in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Allegedly a vehicle struck the car in front of it, causing a series of collisions until ultimately the insured’s car, which was the front vehicle in the chain, was struck from behind.  The driver who caused the accident allegedly fled the scene and it was unknown whether that driver had liability insurance.  The insured driver filed a claim under his insurance company policy for personal injuries and damages related to the collision, which his insurance company denied on the basis that he had rejected UM/UIM coverage.

Typically contracts are enforced as per their terms.  In a case decided by the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, the court held that an insurance policy provision limiting a plaintiff’s time to bring an action to three years from the date of her New Mexico vehicle accident was unenforceable.  At issue was a claim under an insurance policy issued by an Ohio insurance agent to a driver who lived in Ohio at the time the policy was issued to her.  A few months later the driver was involved in a car accident in Taos, New Mexico.  She settled with the insurer of the driver of the other car involved in the accident and then submitted a claim for underinsured motorist coverage to her insurer.  Based on a provision of the insurance policy, her insurer took the position the claim was untimely because it had been brought more than three years after the date of the accident with respect to which insurance benefits were claimed.

The driver then sued her insurer in New Mexico state court, bringing a complaint for declaratory judgment, breach of contract and negligence.  The defendant insurance company removed the insured plaintiff’s action to federal court.  The parties filed cross motions for declaratory judgment, which the court construed as motions for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claim for declaratory judgment.

The plaintiff’s chief argument was that the three year time to sue provision for UM claims in the insurance contract violated New Mexico public policy, thereby precluding application of Ohio law and rendering the provision invalid and unenforceable.  She sought application of New Mexico’s six year statute of limitations for asserting UM claims.  The defendant sought application of the three year limit under Ohio law, arguing it did not violate New Mexico public policy.

Recently, 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.

A 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.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.

The Court looked at the defendants’ contacts with New Mexico, which were presented in the form of evidence submitted by the plaintiffs.  The contacts included extensive contacts by the car manufacturer defendant, including having dealerships in the state, engaging in marketing in the state, and maintaining a website allowing prospective customers to obtain a quote on a vehicle and search an inventory of vehicles in stock in the state.  Similarly, the evidence that the plaintiffs presented with respect to the tire manufacturer showed that this defendant has dealers in New Mexico, sends personnel to the state to assess the performance of its tires, and maintains a website targeting people who live in New Mexico.  The Court observed that the claims at issue did not need to be causally related to the defendants’ conduct in the forum state but instead needed only to “lie in the wake” of the defendants’ activities in the forum state.  The Court affirmed the ruling below, denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Proposed 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.

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New 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.