Court of Appeals of New Mexico Reverses Dismissal of Personal Injury Case following a Jury Verdict for the Defendants

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.

The appellate court explained that as early as the first day of testimony, the trial judge had expressed reservations about admitting the exhibits.  On the third day of trial, the trial judge ruled that the exhibits would not be admitted into evidence but could be used for demonstrative purposes and displayed to the jury in the court’s ELMO system.  In a footnote, the appellate court explained that an ELMO is an electronic monitoring program that projects an exhibit onto a larger screen so that the jury and spectators can all view it at the same time, and that an ELMO also allows witnesses to point out relevant portions of the exhibits while they are testifying.

Although the appellate court was applying an abuse of discretion standard, which is deferential, the court concluded that the trial court had erred by excluding the exhibits from evidence.  The court explained that it was left with the conclusion that there was no basis under the rules of evidence or the more general concerns revolving around effective trial management supporting the decision to exclude the exhibits.  The court observed that, reportedly, during deliberations, the jury asked to see some of the excluded exhibits.  The court took this as an indication that the display of exhibits on the ELMO and the asking of questions about them was not sufficient for the jury’s purposes.  The court rejected the balance of the defendants’ arguments as well, including that the exclusion of exhibits from evidence amounted to a harmless error, and reversed dismissal of the plaintiffs’ personal injury case.

If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident, there may be grounds for a financial recovery.  An award of damages can assist people who are injured and their families with the medical costs, lost wages, and pain and suffering caused by the accident.  To understand more about your case and how it can be pursued to maximize your recoveries, call New Mexico personal injury lawyer Matthew Vance at the Law Office of Matthew Vance, P.C.  We provide a free consultation and can be reached at (505) 242-6267 or online.