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.