Articles Posted in Government Liability

When a fire truck is involved in a New Mexico truck accident, several issues can arise that may not be present in other accidents involving large commercial trucks. The most common issue that arises in any New Mexico truck accident involving a fire truck or other government agency is whether the government is entitled to official immunity.

Historically, the New Mexico government enjoyed official, or sovereign, immunity. State lawmakers did away with this general grant of immunity when they enacted the New Mexico Tort Claims Act (NMTCA). The NMTCA replaced much of the immunity the state and local governments enjoy, but it also established specific areas in which that immunity is waived. Thus, if an accident victim can establish that the government has waived official immunity, the case will proceed to trial, as would be the case if any other defendant was named in the case.

Of course, there are certain procedural requirements that a New Mexico accident victim must follow when filing a case against a state or local government. For example, an accident victim must file a claim, noting the time, place, and circumstances of the injury, with the agency they claim is responsible for their injuries within 90 days of the date of the incident.

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Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a construction accident case involving the question of whether the defendant – a government employee – was entitled to official immunity. The case presents important issues for New Mexico personal injury plaintiffs who have been hurt due to the negligence of a government employee or agency.

The Facts of the Case

A husband and wife were traveling on a rural highway when they quickly came upon a parked construction vehicle. The wife, who was driving the van at the time, was unable to avoid a collision, and both plaintiffs were injured as a result. It was later established that the plaintiffs were traveling within the speed limit, and the weather was clear at the time.

The construction vehicle was similar to a back hoe, and it was parked on the road behind a small pile of dirt that had been dug up to access a leaking pipe below the road’s surface. The construction worker responsible for the job had previously been told by his supervisor to place warning signs in front of an active work zone. However, no one specifically told the worker to place warning signs that day.

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According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), approximately 25 million school-aged children ride school buses in the United States, either to or from school or to or from other extracurricular activities. As a result, there are almost half a million buses that travel over 250 million miles a day. These vehicles carry our most precious cargo and for the most part are some of the safest vehicles.

In fact, school buses are specially designed with a “compartmentalization” technology, which is a protection system designed to make sure students stay safe. However, a recent report by the NTSB indicates that although school buses are some of the safest vehicles, the compartmentalization system is not enough to avoid all risk of injuries or death in a New Mexico school bus accident.

Crash simulations have shown that seat belts could prevent a significant number of serious injuries and death. When put this way, it is odd that seat belts are not mandatory on school buses. The NTSB has now recommended that school buses should have a three-point seat belt to ensure that if the school bus is involved in a crash, the impact will be mitigated because of the school bus’ design.

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Whenever someone is injured in a New Mexico traffic accident involving a government employee, certain complications can arise. For example, personal injury lawsuits naming a government employee or entity must comply with additional procedural requirements in order to be properly heard by the court. Moreover, the issue of government immunity is likely to come up in any case claiming that a government entity is liable for a New Mexico trucking accident.

Government immunity has been around since the country’s formation and is discussed in the U.S. Constitution. As a general rule, states cannot be held liable for the negligent actions of their employees unless they consent to be named in the lawsuit. However, through the New Mexico Tort Claims Act, the government consents to be sued in many types of personal injury cases. A recent case illustrates the type of claim that is not covered under governmental immunity.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was injured when the truck he was driving collided with a fire truck as the two vehicles entered an intersection. At the time of the collision, the fireman operating the truck was returning after conducting a “routine patrol” of the area. The routine patrol consisted of “learning the streets and areas, inspecting the streets and layout of the city,” and covering the territory in case someone needed assistance. Once the routine patrol had concluded, the fireman stopped briefly at a grocery store and then was planning on heading back to the station.

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New Mexico bus accidents happen. And sometimes, the person responsible for causing the accident does not have the ability to pay for the damages themselves and may not even have adequate insurance coverage to ensure that the victims are properly compensated.

For this reason, it is very important that all bus accident victims are extremely diligent when it comes to investigating their claims, and they should take every precaution to ensure that all potentially liable parties are named in the complaint. A plaintiff’s failure to name all of the appropriate parties may result in a plaintiff being under-compensated for their injuries or, worse yet, being unable to collect compensation at all.

Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, employers can be held liable for the negligent acts of their employees in some situations. Before an accident victim is able to recover damages from a negligent employee’s employer, they must first show that the employee was acting within the scope of their employment at the time of the accident. In New Mexico, this can be shown by establishing:

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Emergency vehicles may need to park on the shoulder of the highway for a number of reasons. Commonly, these vehicles are responding to New Mexico auto accidents or are taking care of official government business. However, the presence of these vehicles in such close proximity to fast-moving traffic certainly presents safety issues.

Civilian motorists as well as the government employees who operate emergency vehicles are responsible to take the necessary actions so that traffic is not impeded and motorist safety is not jeopardized. Indeed, in 2005, New Mexico lawmakers passed a “move over” law, requiring motorists to change lanes and slow down as they pass emergency vehicles.

At the same time, drivers of emergency vehicles have a duty to make sure that they take adequate precautions. For example, emergency vehicle drivers should ensure they are pulled over as far off the highway as possible and illuminate any emergency lights on their vehicle to notify passing traffic of their presence.

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Earlier this month in North Carolina, a tragic accident took the lives of two men and left two others injured when the pickup truck in which they were riding was involved in an accident with a heavy-duty dump truck, which left the pickup truck in flames. The response of two good Samaritans who helped get the three occupants of the pickup truck out of the burning vehicle likely saved one man’s life, although the other two occupants perished in the fire.

The Pickup Truck Appears to Turn Directly into the Dump Truck During the Early Morning Commute

According to a local news article discussing the recent crash, the cause of the accident is still under investigation. From the available information, it appears that the driver of the pickup truck was making a turn onto Route 9 from Rabbit Road in Durham, NC, and failed to avoid the dump truck that was in his path. The pickup struck the dump truck near the vehicle’s gas tank, resulting in the fire that engulfed the pickup truck. Speed and visibility may be factors in the accident, although the final analysis has not yet been released.

Recent Construction May Have Made the Road Unsafe

According to the news report, several accidents have occurred at this same intersection in recent months. There is a possible correlation between the spike in accidents at this location and road construction that was recently completed near the intersection. Although the article states that there is no connection between the road construction and the recent accidents, changes made in the design and function of the intersection could have resulted in increased dangers that the municipal authorities may need to address.

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When individuals are injured because of the negligence of another party, there is often a way to at least get some sort of relief, whether it be through a personal injury case or an insurance claim. However, this is not necessarily the case when the other party is a governmental entity. All states have some form of governmental immunity that bars civil personal injury lawsuits against the government. This was originally enacted to ensure that the government runs smoothly without being unduly delayed by many, occasionally frivolous lawsuits. However, this bar can cause a serious problem for victims who are left without any recourse after being injured by a negligent government employee or agency.

Although the Tort Claims Act bars many lawsuits, there are still certain waivers that can allow the government to be held liable. First, it is very important that individuals know that if they want to bring a lawsuit against the government in New Mexico, they give notice within 90 days of the event that gave rise to the claim. Furthermore, the case must involve an actor that falls within one of the exceptions to immunity.

In New Mexico, government immunity attaches to governmental actors, such as those that were operating a motor vehicle, aircraft, or watercraft, as well as government agencies like those operating or maintaining a public park or building, operating an airport, or operating a hospital or mental institution. Furthermore, this waiver may apply to injuries or damages that were caused by law enforcement officers who were acting within the scope of their employment.

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Late last month, the Supreme Court of North Carolina released its opinion in a case stemming from an accident involving a school bus and another driver. The accident occurred back in 2007, when the plaintiff’s car was hit by a school bus that was in the process of transporting students to an athletic event. Approximately three years later, the plaintiff brought a lawsuit against the school board, alleging that the school bus driver was negligent and that his negligence resulted in the plaintiff’s serious injuries. This lawsuit was brought in front of the North Carolina Industrial Commission (“the Commission”).

The defendant moved for a motion for summary judgment, claiming that the Commission did not have jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s claim. The plaintiff then appealed this decision, which was ultimately unanimously reversed. However, the defendant then went on to file a petition for discretionary review, which was permitted. The plaintiff argued that the school activity buses should be within the Commission’s discretion because the vehicle falls within the definition of a “public school bus or school transportation service vehicle.” The Supreme Court ruled that school buses, as described in the governmental immunity statute, and school activity buses, such as the one involved here, are two distinct categories, so these buses were not incorporated into the immunity waivers.

Jurisdictional Issues When Bringing a Negligence Suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act in New Mexico

As this blog has previously addressed, the Federal Tort Claims Act was created to limit the burden of excessive lawsuits against the government. However, with this Act come certain exceptions that allow individuals to bring suits against the government despite the statute. Issues may arise when there is a question as to what is actually covered by the Act and where to bring these types of suits.

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In previous posts, we have talked generally about the Tort Claims Act and how it applies to negligence lawsuits brought against the New Mexico government. To elaborate, many states, including New Mexico, are governed by the Tort Claims Act, which outlines when and how the government can be sued. This law provides certain exceptions to the immunity enjoyed by the government.

It is important that individuals who wish to sue the government understand that even if their claim falls into one of the few enumerated exceptions, there are still very specific limitations on what they can recover.

For example, suppose an individual was injured because of a poorly maintained or designed roadway. At first glance, they may meet one of the exceptions, but the next step in the process is for the plaintiff to allege damages. This is where the limitations come into play. In New Mexico, a plaintiff is capped at $200,000 for damage to their property. Additionally, the cap extends to $300,000 for medical expenses and $400,000 for non-medically related damages.

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Many states have some form of governmental immunity, which is a privilege that prevents the government from being sued in a tort lawsuit. Oftentimes, under this doctrine the government may only be sued if it specifically grants permission to be sued. Like the majority of other states, New Mexico has its own Tort Claims Act which addresses issues of “sovereign immunity.”

In New Mexico, this Act prevents many tort claims against the government, unless the suit falls into a very specific exception. In many instances, an individual may attempt to bring a suit against the government when they have been injured on what they perceive as a dangerously designed or maintained road. However, in New Mexico the Tort Claims Act prevents individuals from bringing a suit against the government under the theory that the government did not safely design a roadway or highway.

Although those types of suits are barred, an individual may bring a suit against the government if they can establish it failed to adequately maintain the road. For example, a person will not likely succeed in a claim against the government if they claim that the accident was caused because drivers could not see oncoming traffic while approaching a curve. However, if a plaintiff claims that the road was not properly maintained because there were known to be potholes on the road’s surface that were not repaired, the claim may be viable. Therefore, it can be very important how a plaintiff’s case is plead in his or her initial filing.

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