Recently, the New Mexico Court of Appeals addressed whether an unlicensed builder was entitled to the defense of the statute of limitations for a legal claim brought by an injured individual. The plaintiff in this case had not known of the builder’s name and had added the builder’s name in a lawsuit filed after he suffered injuries in a fall. Under New Mexico law, the statute of limitations is an affirmative defense. Defendants in a personal injury action can argue that the plaintiff did not bring their lawsuit before the required deadline for filing and that their claim is therefore barred. The Court of Appeals analyzed the facts and procedural history in the underlying lawsuit and held the plaintiff’s claim was properly barred. The injured individual in this case had rented a home during a summer vacation. He suffered injuries after falling from a deck built nearly 10 years earlier by an unlicensed builder. Two years after his fall, the injured individual brought a lawsuit for damages against the lessor of the vacation home.
As the plaintiff in his personal injury action, he also attempted to get the identity of the builder from the lessor. While waiting for the builder’s name, the statute of limitations on the plaintiff’s injury claim had expired. Nearly one year after the plaintiff’s request for the builder’s identity, the lessor located a canceled check with the builder’s name. The plaintiff then named the builder as a defendant in the lawsuit and sought punitive damages against him.
The builder moved for summary judgment, arguing that the statute of limitations had run before he had been named as a defendant. Despite the plaintiff’s argument that the doctrines of equitable tolling and equitable estoppel applied, blocking the operation of the statute of limitations, the district court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims against the builder. The court concluded that a three-year statute of limitations applied in this personal injury action, and the plaintiff filed his claim against the builder after this period of time. Judgment was granted in favor of the defendant, and the plaintiff appealed.
The New Mexico Court of Appeals first stated there is recognized “disdain and enmity” of unlicensed contractors, but the plaintiff here could not prove his claims of either equitable tolling or equitable estoppel. The plaintiff argued that equitable tolling should apply, since extraordinary circumstances prevented him from pursuing his claim. When a plaintiff has used due diligence to obtain all of the information necessary to his claim, equitable tolling may apply to avoid the bar of the statute of limitations. In contrast, equitable estoppel applies when a defendant tries to prevent the plaintiff from bringing a timely lawsuit.
The appellate court stated that in this case, the plaintiff knew he had a cause of action for his injuries, and he brought the lawsuit against the lessor of the property. He also had indicated, through discovery requests, that the builder of the deck shared liability for his injuries. But the court stated that the plaintiff had not been reasonably diligent in finding out the name of the deck’s builder. In fact, the appellate court stated the lower court erred in finding the plaintiff had been sufficiently diligent. The plaintiff had not compelled discovery responses, nor had he asked for specific documents from the lessor that may have addressed the builder’s identity. Rejecting the plaintiff’s claim that exceptional circumstances prevented him from discovering the builder’s identity, the court stated that equitable tolling would not apply.
Next, the court assessed whether equitable estoppel applied. This doctrine prevents a party from asserting the statute of limitations has run if that party has caused the plaintiff to fail to timely file their claim. Here, the issue was whether the plaintiff had relied upon the representations made by the defendant, to the plaintiff’s detriment. But the court noted that over the nine years that elapsed since building the deck and the plaintiff’s injuries, there was no evidence that the defendant knew of the plaintiff’s injury, nor did he know of the lawsuit against the lessor until after the lessor revealed his name, and he received a summons and complaint. The appellate court stated there had been no evidence that the builder had intended to conceal his identity or his liability from the plaintiff.
Finally, the court acknowledged that the builder was an unlicensed contractor, and while New Mexico maintains a strong public policy against unlicensed contractors, this is not enough to prevent the builder’s reliance on the statute of limitations. In conclusion, the court stated that the plaintiff had not shown facts sufficient to trigger either equitable estoppel or equitable tolling. As a result, summary judgment was properly granted in favor of the defendant builder.
This recent decision highlights the importance of abiding by all procedural requirements when pursuing monetary damages following an accident. At the Law Office of Matthew Vance, we help accident victims throughout Albuquerque and New Mexico in their claims for compensation. If you or a loved one has suffered injuries due to the careless or reckless conduct of another party, they can be held legally responsible for the resulting harm. As a New Mexico premises liability attorney, Matt Vance provides diligent representation to injured individuals and their families. Contact our office for a complimentary, no-obligation consultation today. We can be reached by calling (505) 242-6267 or using our online form.
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