New Mexico Court of Appeals Refuses to Grant Department of Transportation Sovereign Immunity in Semi-Truck Debris Case

In a somewhat surprising decision released earlier this month, the New Mexico Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision that determined the New Mexico Department of Transportation could not be held liable for wrongful death based on its failure to adequately discover and remove semi-truck tire debris off the roadway before the debris caused a fatal accident. The court found that the state agency did not enjoy sovereign immunity from this negligence lawsuit because the Department may have been on constructive notice of the hazard, and it had a duty to exercise reasonable care to keep the roadway safe.

floor-3-684910-m.jpgThe Accident
The plaintiff in this case was involved in a New Mexico auto accident on Interstate 25 near St. Francis Drive in Santa Fe in October 2004. According to reports of the accident, the decedent was traveling southbound on the freeway when she either collided with or swerved to avoid pieces of semi-truck tire debris in the roadway, resulting in her death. There was no evidence that the New Mexico Department of Transportation, which maintains that stretch of roadway, had actual knowledge of the hazard. It was also unknown how long the debris had been in the road prior to the accident. A wrongful death lawsuit was filed on the woman’s behalf against the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

Government Agencies are Generally Immune from Civil Lawsuits
Governments and government agencies generally enjoy what is called sovereign immunity from negligence lawsuits for injuries and deaths that are caused in public places. This policy has developed over time to relieve the government of any duty to ensure the general safety of every citizen while in public, which would lead to an impractical legal burden. In some areas of the law, however, the government does not enjoy complete immunity from civil liability for negligence, and this includes roadway maintenance. The New Mexico Tort Claims Act, which governs many negligence claims in the state, has a roadway-maintenance exception, which explicitly states that: “the identification and remediation of roadway hazards” is the responsibility of the Department of Transportation. It is under this exception that the lawsuit was filed.

How Can the Government Be Held Responsible for Roadway Hazards?

Although the government can be held liable for failing to find and remove roadway hazards, the Department of Transportation is not automatically responsible for any injuries or damage caused by road debris. In addressing the plaintiff’s case, the court found that the Department of Transportation could be held liable only if the plaintiff could prove that the Department had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition for a sufficient amount of time prior to the time of the accident so that measures could have been taken to protect against the dangerous condition. It was undisputed that the Department did not have actual knowledge of the hazard before the accident, so the case came down to the question of constructive knowledge.

What Constitutes Constructive Knowledge of a Hazardous Condition?

The New Mexico Court of Appeals sided with the plaintiff on the question of the Department’s constructive knowledge of the hazard. The Department argued that the plaintiff needed to present evidence that the hazard was there for too long before any constructive knowledge could be imputed to the Department. The plaintiff’s argument was that the Department’s policies for waste removal were so vague and poorly executed that a jury could find that the Department could and should have noticed and removed the debris prior to the accident. The court analyzed testimony from several Department employees and found that an issue was raised “as to whether the Department had constructive notice of the tire debris and whether the Department breached its duty to the decedent to timely identify it and remove it.”

Have You Been in an Accident?

Roadway hazards are a cause or contributing factor in many accidents on New Mexico roads every day, and semi-trucks are often the source of the most dangerous types of roadway debris. If you or someone whom you love has been involved in an accident that was caused by debris in the road, there is a chance that someone was negligent and can be held responsible for the damage that was caused. The New Mexico accident attorneys at the Fine Law Firm know how to hold the responsible parties accountable in the event of an accident. Whether from a driver, a trucking company, an insurance company, or a state agency, we know where to look to get you the compensation you deserve. Call today at (585)889-3463, or contact us through our website and schedule a no-obligation consultation and come speak to an attorney about your case.

More Blog Posts:

Bicyclist Hit and Seriously Injured By Garbage Truck in Albuquerque Last Month., New Mexico Truck Accident Lawyer Blog, July 7, 2014.

Fallen Stop Sign Leads Woman to Drive into Intersection and Collide with Semi-Truck, Killing Her Instantly, New Mexico Truck Accident Lawyer Blog, July 28, 2014.