The New Mexico Supreme Court recently held that fraudulent concealment tolls the statute of limitations for a cause of action under the Wrongful Death Act (WDA). Essentially, the question was whether the WDA should be strictly construed, and the three-year statue of limitations should apply, or whether willful, deceitful conduct by defendants tolls the statute of limitations. The Court reviewed policy considerations underlying New Mexico’s law, and it held that while plaintiffs must diligently pursue their claims once an injury (or death) has been discovered, defendants cannot benefit from fraudulent concealment that prevents plaintiffs from filing claims. In this opinion, the Court held that fraudulent concealment tolled the statute of limitations for plaintiffs pursuing a wrongful death claim.
The facts of this case center on a fatal car accident. In September 2006, the victim’s 2002 Toyota Camry suddenly accelerated into a highway intersection. The car collided with a tractor-trailer and burst into flames. On behalf of the deceased driver, her estate filed a wrongful death claim in August 2010. They asserted products liability claims as well as other legal claims against the car manufacturer, the car dealer, and others (defendants).
The wrongful death action had been filed over three years after the date of the victim’s death. The defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that the three-year statute of limitations in the Wrongful Death Act (WDA) barred the claim. They contended that the WDA statute of limitations, which accrues as of the date of death, is to be strictly construed.
The plaintiff argued that the defendants’ fraudulent concealment equitably tolled the statute of limitations. According to the plaintiff, the defendants knew of the sudden acceleration problem for most of the decade before 2010 and before the 2006 fatal accident. They argued that the defendants prevented the plaintiff from obtaining knowledge regarding the cause of action. The plaintiffs argued they did not have a way to discover the wrongful death cause of action before February 2010 and that after discovering their cause of action, they promptly filed the wrongful death lawsuit in August 2010.
The District Court had granted the defendants’ motion, ruling in favor of their judgment on the pleadings. The plaintiff appealed to the Court of Appeals, on the ground that the WDA limitations should be equitably tolled due to fraudulent concealment. The Court of Appeals certified the appeal, and the New Mexico Supreme Court accepted certification.
The plaintiff contended that the doctrine of fraudulent concealment is rooted in common law, providing equitable grounds for tolling the limitations period in the WDA. The defendants argued for a strict application of the limitations period in the WDA. They also contended that the legislature must decide if fraudulent concealment tolls limitations in the WDA.
The Supreme Court stated that the law recognizes people who commit fraud should not benefit from their conduct. When a defendant engages in fraudulent concealment, the statute of limitations is tolled. New Mexico abides by the law of fraudulent concealment, and the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing facts proving it.
The elements of fraudulent concealment are that a defendant knew of the wrongful act and concealed it from the plaintiff, and the plaintiff did not know or could not have known of the cause of action within the statutory period. If the plaintiff meets the burden of proof, the statute begins to run once the plaintiff discovers or should have discovered the cause of action.
The Court stated that the doctrine of equitable tolling differs from equitable estoppel. Equitable tolling applies when a plaintiff cannot obtain vital information related to their claims, and therefore, a plaintiff avoids the bar of the statute of limitations. Equitable estoppel applies when a defendant actively prevents a plaintiff from suing.
Regarding the Wrongful Death Act, the court stated that New Mexico law intends to compensate statutory beneficiaries and deter negligent conduct. The statutory period for wrongful death actions is three years after the cause of action has accrued. The cause of action accrues as of the date of death. The WDA does not address whether fraudulent concealment applies.
Next, the Court turned to the Legislature’s intent. The common-law doctrine of fraudulent concealment fills the gap left by the plain language of the WDA. New Mexico courts have held that fraudulent concealment tolls the limitations period for other statutes, such as the Medical Malpractice Act. Since the legislature’s intent was to provide litigants with an opportunity to present their claims in a timely manner, the Court stated that the Legislature must have intended for fraudulent concealment to apply in WDA cases, when appropriate.
The defendants argued that the Court should not “alter” legislature choices, but the court stated adopting a strict construction of the WDA defeats the remedial purpose of the Act. The Court stated it is consistent with the purpose of the WDA to toll the statutory limitations period when a defendant fraudulently conceals the cause of action. In short, the court held that allowing a defendant to conceal a cause of action and then claim the statute of limitations as a defense runs against the intent of the WDA.
The court reiterated that fraudulent concealment addresses a defendant’s willful, deceitful conduct. The doctrine of fraudulent concealment may toll the statute of limitations for wrongful death actions. The Court remanded the case to the District Court to determine whether in this case, the limitations period was tolled until the plaintiff had actual knowledge of the cause of action.
At the Law Office of Matthew Vance, P.C., we help families and loved ones seek justice after a wrongful death. Following a fatal car accident or another catastrophic event in the Albuquerque area, attorney Matthew Vance can aggressively pursue compensation from the responsible parties. To discuss your claim, contact our office by calling (505) 242-6267 or using our online form. We provide a no-obligation consultation.
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