Articles Posted in New Mexico Truck Accident Cases

Recently, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a New Mexico truck accident case affirming a $164 million jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The case presented the court with the opportunity to discuss whether the significant jury award was permissible under state law. Finding that there was no reason to reject the jury’s determination, the court affirmed the jury’s verdict.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff’s wife, daughter, and son were traveling a few miles per hour in the right-most lane of the highway when a Fed Ex truck slammed into the back of the family’s vehicle. The damage was tremendous, and the plaintiff’s wife and daughter were both killed in the collision. The plaintiff’s nineteen-month-old son survived despite sustaining serious injuries.

The plaintiff brought a negligence and wrongful death lawsuit against several parties, including Fed Ex and the driver of the truck, who was an independent contractor for Fed Ex. The case proceeded to a jury trial, and after the conclusion of the evidence the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The verdict consisted of several different categories of damages, but the total award was nearly $165 million. The economic damages awarded by the jury were roughly 1-3% of the total award; the rest being non-economic damages.

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Recently, an appellate court issued an opinion in a personal injury case finding that summary judgment should be granted because the plaintiff did not properly respond to the defendant’s motion. The case is important for New Mexico trucking accident victims because it illustrates how crucial it is to comply with all court-imposed requirements.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was a truck driver who was injured when he opened the door to his truck’s trailer, and a load of boxes toppled over on top of him. The truck driver sustained injuries and subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit against the person who loaded the truck and that person’s employer.

The company moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff could not establish each element of his case. However, the plaintiff did not respond. Instead, the plaintiff asked the court to allow him to call an expert witness to testify at trial. The lower court found that since the driver did not respond to the summary judgment motion, he essentially accepted the facts presented in that motion, and as a result, the motion should be granted.

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At the end of last month, a prominent New Mexico news source reported that a New Mexico judge denied FedEx’s motion for a new trial in a wrongful death suit against the company. As a previous New Mexico Personal Injury Lawyer Blog post discussed, the company was sued after a FedEx truck was involved in an accident that killed a mother and her daughter.

Evidently, the truck was traveling at a very high rate of speed when it rammed into the family’s pickup truck. The pickup truck was moving very slowly with its emergency flashers on in Las Cruces on I-10. The family asserted that the company was negligent because it allowed its truck to be contracted out to this particular individual, who was on sleeping medication and had a history of mental health problems. The family was awarded a $165 million verdict.

The family’s attorney claims that FedEx still has not paid anything. FedEx moved the court for a new trial. However, that motion was rejected by the judge. In fact, the judge also refused to reduce the large judgment against FedEx.
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Late last week, a Sante Fe jury determined that $165.5 million should be awarded to the families of the victims in a 2011 crash near Las Cruces, New Mexico. According to a local news report, the verdict, which was mainly against FedEx, is one of the highest jury awards in the state.

Evidently, a GMC pickup truck was carrying three individuals–one driver and two passengers. The car was struck by a tractor-trailer that was contracted by Fed Ex. Apparently, the accident happened around 1:30 a.m. on June 22, 2011. The driver of the GMC stopped on the side of the road with her hazard lights on, but the tractor-trailer rammed into her SUV from behind.

A negligence suit against Fed Ex was brought by the victim’s husband and her parents. The crux of the family’s argument was surrounding the lack of training and safety procedures for the driver of the tractor-trailer. The victims’ attorneys argued that the tractor-trailer driver could have easily seen the victim’s car and was speeding right before the accident occurred. The jury agreed and found that the defendant was 95% at fault, which resulted in about $157,256,350 of liability.
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Late last month, a truck driver died as a result of serious injuries he incurred in a trucking accident. According to the New Mexico State Police and a local news report, the accident occurred on November 19 right after midnight.

Apparently, the truck driver was traveling west on State Route 128 when he tried to make a U-turn after missing his turn. The back of his truck became “high-centered,” or stuck in the middle of the road. Another commercial vehicle on the same side attempted to assist the truck driver. As he was doing this, a third truck that was traveling in the opposite direction struck the driver as he was attempting to get it out of the road. An initial investigation has not revealed that alcohol was a contributing factor in the accident, but it is still under investigation by the New Mexico Department of Public Safety.

Liability in Truck Accidents
All accidents have the potential to be disastrous, but trucking accidents often are the most severe in terms of the amount of the damage done to the parties involved. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration estimates that over 88,000 individuals were injured on average for the past several years as a result of truck accidents.
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The Court of Appeals of New Mexico released a decision in August 2014 that allowed the mother of an accident victim’s child to intervene in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the child’s stepmother (and the victim’s current wife). The ruling in the case of Spoon v. Burn Construction Company, docket no. 32674, Court of Appeals of New Mexico (2014), reversed a district-court order that the mother could not intervene to assert a loss of consortium claim against the construction company on behalf of her son, who lost his father in the deadly accident.

The victim was killed on July 30, 2012 when a truck that was being operated by the defendant construction company made a left turn into the path of the victim’s motorcycle at an intersection in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The motorcyclist was unable to avoid crashing into the construction vehicle and died from the resulting collision. A New Mexico wrongful death lawsuit was filed by the man’s current wife, which alleged that the driver of the construction vehicle was negligent and failed to yield the right of way to the motorcyclist, causing the accident. The current wife requested damages on behalf of her husband’s estate. She also requested damages for loss of consortium for herself personally, and also on behalf of the victim’s son, who is also her stepson.
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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.

The 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.
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A federal district court ruled earlier this year that the plaintiffs’ claim alleging a freight company’s liability for injuries sustained in an accident caused by the negligence of a driver employed by another company hired to transport materials on the freight company’s behalf should be heard by a jury. In the case of Beavers v. Victorian, the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma rejected the defendants’ arguments that a motor carrier could not be held liable for negligently hiring an “independent contractor” that was at fault for injuries sustained in a semi truck accident.

The Accident

The accident that led to the case occurred in February of 2011 in Colorado, when a car being driven by the two plaintiffs, a husband and wife, was hit by a semi-truck that they allege was being negligently operated by an incompetent driver. Both the husband and wife were seriously hurt and suffered traumatic brain injury as a result of the accident. The couple sued several parties to obtain compensation for the costs and loss associated with their injuries.

The Lawsuit

A lawsuit for negligence was filed against the truck driver and the company he worked for, but the company employing the driver was relatively small and new, and the plaintiffs were unlikely to be fully compensated by this smaller company and the driver alone. Therefore, the plaintiffs also sued the larger freight company that contracted with the smaller company and the driver involved in the accident. The complaint alleged that the larger company was vicariously liable for the driver’s negligence, and also that the larger company was negligent in hiring the smaller company, and therefore responsible for the damages sustained in the accident.
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In a recent case, the Federal Court for the District of New Mexico ruled against a plaintiff who was injured in an accident with a semi-truck in 2012 and has forbidden the issue of punitive damages from being heard at trial. As a result of this ruling, the plaintiff will be limited, as a matter of law, as to the amount of damages that she can request. Even if the jury wants to give an additional reward to the plaintiff as a result of the intentional, reckless, or grossly negligent behavior of the truck driver, the plaintiff raised the issue of additional damages too late for it to be heard by the jury.

The Accident and Plaintiff’s Claim
In this New Mexico accident lawsuit, the plaintiffs are arguing that the defendant truck driver caused one of the plaintiffs to lose control and then crashed his vehicle into theirs, causing injury to the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs did not allege in their initial complaint or subsequent filings that they would seek additional punitive damages against the defendant. They were simply seeking the actual damages that resulted from the defendant’s alleged negligence. Nearly a year after the initial complaint was filed, the plaintiffs alleged, in a final pretrial order, that the defendant should be responsible for punitive damages because of its conduct. By including this claim in the pretrial order, the plaintiffs were attempting to give the jury the opportunity to award them more damages than what they actually suffered, as a way to punish the defendant for its conduct that led to the accident.

How to Allege Punitive Damages and the Court’s Ruling
Punitive damages are allowed in New Mexico accident cases as a way for the jury to punish a defendant for conduct that is so excessive or abhorrent that it must be condemned above and beyond what is required to compensate the plaintiffs for their injuries. In order for a jury to award punitive damages against a defendant, the plaintiff must properly allege such damages throughout the case. To be heard by the jury, an allegation for punitive damages must contain a claim that the defendant “acted maliciously, willfully, recklessly, wantonly, fraudulently, or in bad faith.” In this case, the Court found that the plaintiffs did not allege anything needed to seek punitive damages until they prepared the final pretrial order. The complaint, statement of the issues, and discovery disclosures contained no claim for punitive damages, and the Court therefore decided that the claim within the pretrial order was not made properly. As a result of this finding, the Court denied the plaintiff’s request to give the jury the option of imposing punitive damages against the defendant, and it ordered that the case go to trial on only the issues alleged in the initial complaint.
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Late last month, a terrifying accident occurred just outside Albuquerque, New Mexico when a tractor trailer carrying a tank of water was rear-ended by another semi-truck and spilled its contents on the road, causing the second truck to overturn and leading to a complete closure of the westbound lanes of I-40 for several hours. Luckily, no other vehicles were involved in the accident.

Apparently, the water truck was traveling westbound on the highway when the second truck collided with it from behind. The semi-truck crash caused the tank on the water truck to rupture and spilled the entire contents on the interstate. Additionally, the impact disconnected the driver’s compartment of the second truck from the trailer and caused the cabin to turn on its side. The driver of the overturned truck was able to escape from the cab of his vehicle and hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries.

The crash, while certainly frightening for those involved and inconvenient to other commuters, was relatively harmless considering the possible outcomes. Semi-trucks often tow pressurized tanks of flammable or hazardous chemicals, and when they are involved in a collision, those chemicals can be spilled onto the road or into the atmosphere and cause devastating consequences. When a driver is involved in or confronted by an accident caused by a semi-truck, it is often difficult for them to avoid becoming part of the accident. In an accident like last month’s, where only water was spilled onto the roadway, the consequences are minor. When more dangerous chemicals are spilled as the result of an accident, innocent bystanders exposed to the chemicals can be seriously injured or even killed.
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The New Mexico federal court’s ruling in Tom vs SB Inc. denied the defendants’ requests to enter evidence of adjustments they had made to the time logging practices that their semi-truck drivers used. This ruling demonstrates that many commercial semi-truck drivers fail to keep the required time logs, and even when they keep a time log, the logs often include dishonest or inaccurate information.

The Facts of the Case
According to the opinion, a relative of the plaintiff was killed in an accident with a truck driven by an employee of the defendant trucking company. After the accident and death of the plaintiff’s loved one, the trucking company wanted to introduce evidence that they have improved their time logging practices since the accident (this is a unique situation, as defendants usually want to exclude evidence that they fixed a problem after an accident that was allegedly their fault). Apparently the defendants wanted the jury to see that they shouldn’t be tacked with punitive damages because they fixed a problem when they found out about it.

The Court’s Opinion

Under Federal Rule of Evidence 407, plaintiffs are excluded from introducing evidence of remedial measures taken by a defendant after the alleged accident occurred. In this case, the defendants wanted to introduce the evidence and the plaintiffs were using Rule 407 to prevent them to. The Court here actually sided with the defendants in deciding that the Rule 407 exception only applies when a plaintiff want to introduce evidence and a defendant refuses.
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In an interesting decision that was published on February 24, 2014, the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, who had filed suit against an Insurance Company after being involved in a semi-truck accident. In Lucero v. Northland Insurance Company, NMCA 2014 (docket No. 32426), the Court decided that a semi-tractor and semi-trailer are classified as two different vehicles when determining policy limits for an insurance claim, and that the combination of policy limits for each vehicle can be sought from a single accident.

According to the court documents, the plaintiffs were driving on a New Mexico road when their car was struck by a semi-truck, which was being driven by an employee of a New Mexico trucking company. The plaintiffs were injured in the accident, and they filed a claim against the trucking company’s insurance provider. The plaintiffs claimed substantial damages, and argued that the tractor and trailer should be classified as two different covered vehicles under the policies, which would make the trucking company liable for up to $2 million in damages.

The Decision in the Trial Court

Believing that the tractor and trailer constituted only one vehicle, the insurance company was only willing to cover the claim up to $1 million, which was the total policy limit. The insurance company also argued that the total policy limit per accident was $1 million and the plaintiffs were not entitled to $2 million from any single accident, regardless of how many covered vehicles are involved. The state District Court sided with the insurance company, determining that the policy only covered $1 million total for the accident, and the plaintiffs appealed.
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