Articles Posted in truck 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).

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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An important part of a personal injury case can be determining the physical condition of the plaintiff. A New Mexico federal trial court recently decided an insurance company defendant’s motion seeking an independent medical examination of the plaintiff.  The court tried to balance the parties’ rights because there were several points of disagreement including duration and scope and, ultimately, granted the motion in part and denied it in part.

Allegedly the plaintiff, who was a passenger in the bed of a pick-up truck on the day of the accident, suffered serious and permanent injuries after the truck she was in rolled off a washed-out dirt road.  She sought to recover damages from an insurance company on the basis of failure to pay underinsured motorist insurance benefits that she alleged were due to her.  Her lawsuit included claims for breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing, breach of fiduciary duty and violation of the New Mexico Unfair Insurance Practices Act and the New Mexico Unfair Practices Act.  The insurance company defendant responded by, among other things, seeking a court order requiring the plaintiff to undergo an independent medical examination with no restrictions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 35.

Under Rule 35, a federal court may order “a party whose mental or physical condition . . . is in controversy to submit to a physical or mental examination by a suitably licensed or certified examiner.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 35(a)(1). The Rule tries to balance the rights of parties as its provisions reflect.  For example, court orders under the Rule “may be made only on motion for good cause and . . . must specify the time, place, manner, conditions, and scope of the examination, as well as the person or persons who will perform it.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 35(a)(2). Under cases construing the Rule discussed by the court, the party requesting the examination must show that the physical or mental condition of the party to be examined is in controversy and that good cause exists for the examination.  Additionally, the court explained that the showing of good cause is to be a greater showing than that under other discovery rules because a mere relevance standard would render the good cause requirement meaningless.  The court also explained that, while Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure should be construed liberally to allow discovery, how it is to be applied in a particular case is within the “sound discretion” of the court.

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.

Claims are subject to dismissal through summary judgment when a party can establish that there are no genuine issues of material fact with respect to the claims, and the claims cannot succeed as a matter of law.  A summary judgment motion can seek the dismissal of a complaint in its entirety or be a partial summary judgment motion directed at some of the claims asserted in a complaint.  In a recent case, plaintiffs filed suit against the driver of a tractor trailer and the freight line that owned the vehicle he was driving at the time of the collision with the plaintiffs’ vehicle.

The plaintiffs asserted claims of negligence, negligence per se, and negligent entrustment and sought an award of punitive damages.  The defendants removed the case from the New Mexico state court in which the plaintiffs had filed their complaint to a New Mexico federal district court, and they filed a motion for partial summary judgment with respect to the plaintiffs’ second amended complaint.  The defendants asserted that the record supported the dismissal of the negligent entrustment and punitive damages claims as a matter of law.  The plaintiffs did not file a response in opposition.  Still, the Court had to assess whether the defendants had met their initial responsibility of demonstrating a basis for partial summary judgment.

The Court studied the evidence that the defendants had submitted and their arguments.  With respect to the negligent entrustment claim, the defendants had argued that the record did not support liability because the undisputed facts showed that the driver did not have a record of citations for traffic violations and had passed a drug test on the day of the accident.  The record before the Court also showed that the driver had only been in one accident previously, in which a vehicle had backed into the truck he was driving, had conducted a pre-trip inspection of the tractor trailer, was not using his cell phone at the time of the accident, was driving with low beams, was not exceeding the speed limit, and had tried to avoid the plaintiffs’ vehicle before the collision occurred that had given rise to their alleged damages.  With this record before it, the Court accepted the defendants’ contention that there was no evidence presented that the owner of the truck knew or should have known that the driver would operate it in a manner that would create an unreasonable risk of harm to others.  As a result, and without evidence to counter by the plaintiffs, the Court was amenable to granting the defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment with respect to the negligent entrustment claim.

New Mexico residents share the roads with commercial vehicles, including trucks.  Among concerns are accidents caused by truck driver fatigue.  There are resources available to educate truck drivers, who are often under pressure to drive longer hours by their employers.

Technology in the shipping and trucking industries is rapidly advancing. Tesla debuted in November 2017 an electric semi-truck, expected to be manufactured two years from its introduction, which includes autonomous driving capabilities.  An article by Fortune discusses features including Enhanced Autopilot, which is designed to allow a vehicle to stay within a driving lane, match the speed of the vehicle to traffic conditions, and even change lanes without the help of the driver.

Tesla’s new electric semi-truck could dramatically change the shipping and truck driving industries by bringing down costs. It is environmentally friendly and promoted on bases including that a single charge could power a truck for 500 miles while carrying a load of 80,000 pounds.  The Tesla technology could also be used as part of a system described as “platooning,” in which a series of trucks follow a lead truck and synchronize speeds and routes via the use of sensors and RADAR technology.  The platooning system is thought to have advantages including reducing wind resistance and cutting down on emissions from trucks.