Articles Posted in Personal Injury

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.

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.

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 federal district court recently granted a motion for judgment on the pleadings filed by the defendant in a New Mexico wrongful death case.  The court concluded that New Mexico law does not impose a duty to refrain from selling gasoline to an allegedly intoxicated driver, and it dismissed a negligent entrustment claim.  The court gave the plaintiff 14 days to address the court’s skepticism with respect to the plaintiff’s negligent hiring, training, and supervision claim, which the court understood to be predicated on the same legal duty as the negligent entrustment claim.

Underlying the ruling was a fatal accident that occurred after a person working at a store sold gasoline to a person who was allegedly visibly intoxicated.  The representative of the person who was killed in the accident caused by the allegedly intoxicated driver sued the store whose worker sold the gasoline for negligent entrustment based on the sale of gasoline, and for negligent hiring, training, and supervision of the employee who sold the gasoline.

The personal representative filed a case in the District Court of the Navajo Nation in Crownpoint, New Mexico.  The case was met with a successful summary judgment motion premised on a time bar under the Navajo Nation’s two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims.  The plaintiff appealed the ruling to the Navajo Nation Supreme Court and, while the appeal was pending, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in New Mexico state district court, which the defendant removed to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico.

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The Court of Appeals of New Mexico recently reversed the dismissal of a personal injury case brought by the parents of a child who had been injured in a school-sponsored sports program.  The parents alleged that, when their son was 12 years old and a student at a New Mexico middle school, he joined the wrestling team sponsored by the school.  He had allegedly never before participated in a school-sponsored sports program before joining the wrestling team.  The parents further alleged that on the day of the accident, which was the first day of practice, the boys who were participating were allowed to engage in a game called “king of the mat.”  The game’s object was to score take down points and the minor was allegedly taken down on his neck forcefully enough to injure his cervical area by an older, stronger boy with at least one year of wrestling experience.

Following the trial, a jury found in favor of the defendants, a group which included the school district, the principal and athletic director, and the two coaches who were onsite on the day of the accident.  On appeal the plaintiffs asserted that the district court had erred in refusing to admit into evidence certain exhibits including excerpts from the school district’s policies and personnel manual and an excerpt from the school district’s athletic handbook.

The Court of Appeals applied an abuse of discretion standard in reviewing the exclusion of evidence.  The court explained that an abuse of discretion occurs when a ruling is clearly contrary to the logical conclusions demanded by the facts and circumstances of a case.  The court explained further that the party challenging on appeal the exclusion of evidence must show that the erroneous exclusion was prejudicial.  The appellate court then reviewed what had occurred at the trial court level with respect to the exhibits at issue.
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ruling handed down earlier this year shows that New Mexico personal injury lawsuits can be difficult for an individual to prosecute without having the benefit of experienced counsel.  As the ruling explains, a litigant needs to pay court filing fees or achieve leave to proceed without paying fees, the litigant’s complaint needs to state a claim under applicable law including a basis for the court’s exercise of jurisdiction, and the complaint needs to be served on defendants.

The court’s ruling followed the filing of a complaint by a plaintiff acting pro se, a term referring to an individual acting on his or her own behalf.  The plaintiff sued a supermarket chain, alleging that he fell and injured himself because the defendant had failed to remedy a foreseeable hazard.  The plaintiff further alleged that but for the negligence of the supermarket chain in failing to keep its premises safe, the plaintiff would not have fallen and exacerbated his pre-existing conditions.  The plaintiff also alleged that the inactions of the defendant’s management were the proximate and direct causes of the injuries he had sustained.

The plaintiff filed an application seeking to proceed without paying fees or costs, referred to as an application to proceed in forma pauperis.  The court granted the motion based on the plaintiff’s alleged inability to pay, which the plaintiff documented in an affidavit.  The court also took the opportunity to explain what needed to happen before the plaintiff could proceed with his lawsuit.
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Personal injury lawsuits brought in New Mexico typically proceed on the basis that they will be heard by a jury.  Recently a New Mexico federal court granted a motion to compel arbitration brought by a defendant and stayed the plaintiffs’ personal injury lawsuit pending the completion of arbitration.

Allegedly, the plaintiff had been employed as a maintenance engineer in an Albuquerque store of a national retail chain.  While he was at work he was electrocuted and, as a result, fell off of a ladder, causing him to sustain injuries.  The injured employee and his wife sued the store and two managerial employees in the Second Judicial District Court of the State of New Mexico, County of Bernalillo.  Their complaint asserted causes of action for negligence and negligence per se, loss of consortium and conspiracy and sought to hold the defendants jointly and severally liable.  The complaint sought both compensatory and punitive damages.

After being served with the complaint the national retail chain that had employed the plaintiff at the time of the accident removed the lawsuit from state court to federal court.  It then moved the court to compel the plaintiffs to arbitrate their claims against it. Continue reading