New Mexico Federal District Court Concludes that New Mexico Law Does Not Impose a Duty to Refrain from Selling Gasoline to an Allegedly Intoxicated Driver

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.

The defendant’s litigation strategy included filing a motion to compel the plaintiff to elect in which forum he would proceed and seeking, in the alternative, the dismissal of the federal court complaint on the ground that the plaintiff had impermissibly engaged in claim splitting of his claims between federal and tribal courts.  The court did not rule for the defendant on these theories, and it concluded that the parallel actions could proceed toward judgment until one became preclusive of the other.  The court observed that no party had argued, and there was nothing before it to indicate, that any restriction existed on the tribal court’s concurrent civil jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s claims.  The court rejected the position that the plaintiff had improperly engaged in claim splitting by filing duplicative lawsuits in different court systems.

While the court ruled for the plaintiff to this extent, the court ruled against the plaintiff on the merits of the negligent entrustment claim. According to the plaintiff, a number of factors made it foreseeable that selling gasoline would put the motoring public at risk.  The plaintiff’s theory of the case, as summarized by the court, was that the driver was allegedly visibly intoxicated when he arrived at the defendant’s gas station on foot, his companion and he purchased a single gallon of gasoline, making it obvious he was using it to start his car, and the defendant’s gas station is located near a highway with a high speed limit.  Among the questions this raised was whether the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care under New Mexico law.

The court declined to find that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care to refrain from selling gasoline to an allegedly intoxicated driver for the primary reason that the plaintiff had not cited, and the court had not found, New Mexico judicial cases or laws expressly holding that such a duty exists.  The court did not extend cases from other jurisdictions into New Mexico, noting that New Mexico imposes liability on parties for alcohol-related accidents, and the New Mexico legislature imposes no liability on gasoline vendors.  Ultimately, the court concluded that if the allegedly visibly intoxicated driver legally purchased gasoline, the defendant had no duty to refrain from making the sale.

If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident, there may be grounds for a financial recovery.  An award of monetary damages can assist people who are injured and their families with the medical costs, lost wages, and pain and suffering caused by the accident.  Sometimes a case can be pursued in more than one court because there is concurrent jurisdiction.  To understand more about your case and how it can be pursued to maximize your recovery, 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.