Articles Posted in Personal Injury

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 recently ruled against a plaintiff in a New Mexico wrongful death suit that was based on a successive entrustment theory of liability.  The ruling came in the context of resolving a motion for summary judgment brought by one of the defendants, a company that had an independent contractor agreement with one of the individual defendants pursuant to which she was operating a truck to transport cargo.  Allegedly in violation of the agreement, the driver picked up her father as a passenger, who went on to drive the truck and cause an accident resulting in the death of her employee who was asleep in the truck’s bunk bed when her father lost control of the truck.

The mother of the deceased employee, as personal representative of his estate, sued her son’s employer, the employer’s father, and the company that had leased her son’s employer the truck.  She sued in New Mexico state court and then the lessor of the truck removed the case to federal court.  The lessor brought a summary judgment motion.  Resolution was to be based on New Mexico law because the underlying truck accident occurred in New Mexico.

The lessor defendant argued to the federal district court that the driver of the truck at the time of the accident was not its employee under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations; that it was not negligent in its own right for its training of its independent contractor who had entrusted the truck to her father, and that it should not be held liable for the successive entrustment of the truck by its independent contractor to her father.  The court accepted these arguments reasoning that the driver at the time of the accident was not an employee and there was no evidence that the alleged lack of training by the lessor of the authorized driver of the vehicle contributed to the entrustment of the vehicle. Reviewing New Mexico state law, the court also concluded that New Mexico does not recognize a cause of action for negligent entrustment based on multiple, successive entrustments.

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.

Hedonic damages are a measure of damages recognized by New Mexico personal injury law.  They are meant to provide compensation for the pleasure of being alive.  Following a deadly collision between the driver of a motorcycle and the driver of a car, a New Mexico federal magistrate judge decided to admit qualitative expert testimony on hedonic damages and exclude expert testimony quantifying hedonic damages.

The case arose after a person riding his motorcycle collided with a person driving a car, who turned in front of the motorcycle.  The collision, which took place in Grants, New Mexico, resulted in the death of the driver of the motorcycle and the filing of a wrongful death lawsuit.  The plaintiffs were the personal representative of the wrongful death estate of the deceased motorcyclist and relatives of the deceased.  The defendants were the personal representative of the estate of the driver of the car that collided with the motorcyclist and an automobile insurance company.

The plaintiffs wished to introduce at trial testimony from an economist concerning the value of economic losses resulting from the death of the motorcyclist, including lost earning capacity and loss of household services.  The plaintiffs also sought to introduce at trial the economist’s testimony as to hedonic damages.  The defendants sought to exclude any expert testimony regarding hedonic damages.

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A New Mexico federal Magistrate Judge recently recommended denial of a construction company’s motion to dismiss or stay a suit by the construction company’s insurer.  The insurance company had sued in New Mexico federal court seeking a declaration that it was not obligated to cover a lawsuit against the construction company in New Mexico state court for personal injuries and property damage.

The state court lawsuit was based on the construction company using the services of an insulation and fireproofing contractor to install Icynene SPF in a custom built home.  After the Icynene SPF was installed and homeowners moved in, the homeowners complained that the product was causing noxious and harmful fumes, gases and odors to fill the house.  The homeowners submitted a demand letter to the construction company, and its insurance company retained counsel to represent the construction company.  The homeowners then sued the Icynene SPF manufacturer, the insulation and fireproofing contractor that had installed it and the construction company in the Thirteenth Judicial District of New Mexico.

A few months later the construction company’s insurer filed a complaint in federal court pursuant to the Declaratory Judgment Act.  The insurance company sought a declaration that the allegations in the complaint brought in state court by the homeowners against the construction company were not covered by the construction company’s insurance policy.  The homeowners answered the complaint and the construction company moved to dismiss or, in the alternative, to stay proceedings.

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.

The United States District Court for the District of New Mexico recently handed down an opinion dismissing claims by a New Mexico State Police trooper for failure to keep premises safe.  The Court interpreted New Mexico’s “firefighter’s rule” as also applying to claims brought by law enforcement officers.

The plaintiff had alleged as part of a complaint filed in state court that, during the course of executing a warrant, he was shot and critically wounded due to the failure of a property management company to keep its premises safe.  The plaintiff sought to hold the defendant liable for damages sustained after he was shot on the basis that the defendant was aware that the shooter was not an authorized resident, of his frequency on the premises, of his residency, and of his violent nature and criminal record.  According to the complaint, the defendant had previously removed the man from its property.

The defendant responded to the complaint by removing it to federal court and filing a motion to dismiss based on the “firefighter’s rule.”  The plaintiff opposed dismissal.  Pursuant to the standard for considering a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court was to accept the allegations in the complaint as true, view the allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff’s favor.  The Court was to then consider whether the plaintiff’s claims were facially plausible, meaning whether the facts pleaded in the complaint could allow the court to draw reasonable inferences that the defendant could be held liable for the misconduct alleged.  After reciting the standard for assessing motions to dismiss, the Court concluded that the complaint failed to allege facts sufficient to state a plausible claim for relief.

A U.S. Magistrate Judge recently ruled in favor of a plaintiff seeking discovery to aid his prosecution of a personal injury case.  The plaintiff had sought to obtain certain information from the defendant Home Depot, including a response to an interrogatory posed to the defendant concerning prior customer claims for injuries that the stores allegedly caused by or involving pallets.  The Court held a telephonic hearing on April 18, 2018 that ran over an hour after reviewing submissions by the plaintiff and the defendant.  Over the course of the hearing, the plaintiff’s counsel agreed to narrow the scope of the interrogatory that was a focus of the hearing, and the Court ordered the defendant to respond to the interrogatory as modified.

The plaintiff, via his counsel, filed a Motion to Compel on May 31, 2018, bringing to the Court’s attention that the defendant had not supplemented its discovery responses to include information concerning previous nationwide claims and lawsuits regarding injuries sustained by the defendant’s customers pertaining to slips, trips and falls involving pallets.  The plaintiff was frustrated because a few weeks earlier during the April 18 hearing the request had been modified to facilitate compliance with it.  The defendant had been allowed to respond with information stored in the defendant’s searchable database and, with respect to claims that had ripened into litigation, the defendant could respond by providing only names of the parties to the filed cases, the case numbers, and the districts in which the cases proceeded.

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