Courts can rule for or against parties as a matter of law by granting motions for summary judgment. If a motion for summary judgment is granted, absent a reversal on appeal, the issues it decides will not be presented to the trier of fact, which in New Mexico personal injury cases is often a jury.
In a recent ruling, the United States District Court denied for the most part a motion for summary judgment brought by a driver of a semi-tractor trailer and his employer, the defendants in a personal injury lawsuit. The court granted the defendants’ summary judgment motion with respect to the plaintiff’s punitive damages claim, and it denied summary judgment with respect to the plaintiff’s New Mexico state law claims, including negligence, negligence per se, and negligent training and supervision.
The underlying accident occurred on Interstate I-40 at around 3:00 in the morning, after the individual defendant had taken over driving responsibilities from his brother.
As the defendant approached Gallup, New Mexico, after stopping for a 30-minute mandatory Department of Transportation break, it was sleeting. He testified that weather conditions were “sub-optimal” and that as he was driving westbound on I-40, he felt an impact but, believing he had struck a deer, continued to drive. He further testified that he pulled over, assessed the damage to the tractor-trailer he had been driving, and returned to the location he believed was the location of the impact to determine whether there was anything in the road. Finding nothing, he continued driving westbound on I-40.
A witness driving westbound on I-40 at around the same time saw a male, who would later be identified as the plaintiff, walking backwards on the roadway as though he were hitchhiking. The witness, who was operating a commercial vehicle when he saw this, contacted authorities and reported seeing the pedestrian and what the pedestrian was wearing. An officer with the Gallup Police Department was dispatched, saw a shoe in the middle of the roadway, and found the plaintiff lying face down in a muddy roadside area. An officer from the Holbrook, Arizona Police Department was dispatched in response to an attempt to locate the vehicle the individual defendant was driving. The officer stopped the vehicle. A detective from the Gallup Police Department then interviewed the defendant in Holbrook. The plaintiff does not recall any of the events leading up to or immediately following the alleged collision.
Against this factual background, which was stipulated by the parties for the purposes of the adjudication of the summary judgment motion, the court declined to dismiss most of the plaintiff’s claims. The court left it to a jury to decide negligence, concluding that a jury should decide whether the individual defendant had breached his duty of care owed to the plaintiff and/or proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries. The court also denied summary judgment with respect to the claims of negligence per se, which were based on alleged violations of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act and implementing regulations. The court further denied summary judgment with respect to the claims against the corporate defendant that employed the individual defendant who had been driving on the night of the accident. These claims, for negligent hiring, training, supervision, retention, and entrustment, were also to be determined by a jury, according to the court’s ruling.
The court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants with respect to punitive damages claimed by the plaintiff. The court explained that:
Under New Mexico law, negligent conduct alone is insufficient to support a finding of punitive damages. Instead, “[t]o be liable for punitive damages, a wrongdoer must have some culpable mental state, and the wrongdoer’s conduct must rise to a willful, wanton, malicious reckless, oppressive, or fraudulent level[.]”
The court determined that the plaintiff had not met his burden on summary judgment to demonstrate a genuine issue of fact for trial regarding the individual defendant’s culpable mental state that would support a punitive damages claim.
If you or a loved one was injured in an accident, there may be grounds for an award of damages. In some cases, punitive damages are available in addition to compensatory damages. 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. To understand more about your case, call New Mexico truck accident 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.
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