Justia Injury Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in New Mexico Supreme Court
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Paul Barber and his law firm, Barber & Borg, L.L.C. were the attorneys for Ellen Sam. Barber filed a lawsuit against numerous defendants for injuries Sam sustained when her car was struck from behind on Interstate 40. Barber also represented Sam in her capacity as the personal representative of the estates of her daughter and granddaughter, both of whom died from injuries they sustained in the collision. At some time during his representation of Sam, Barber learned that Sam had been drinking alcohol before the collision and that she had "parked at night with the lights off in a lane of traffic on [I-40], following which the car was struck by a truck." Barber also learned at some time during the litigation that Sam, who was a statutory beneficiary of her daughter's estate, took the position that the other statutory beneficiary, her ex-husband, Herman Spencer, was not entitled to share in any wrongful death proceeds because he had abandoned their daughter. Based on Sam's position, Barber approached Spencer in person with a settlement agreement, which Spencer ultimately signed, that reduced Spencer's entitlement to proceeds from the wrongful death litigation. Spencer later challenged the validity of the agreement. Barber filed a lawsuit against Spencer on Sam's behalf to enforce the agreement. Spencer counterclaimed against Sam and filed a third-party complaint against Barber for malpractice, fraud, collusion, and misrepresentation. The district court granted Barber summary judgment on the grounds that Barber did not owe a duty to Spencer as a statutory beneficiary because Spencer and Sam were adverse parties, and Barber represented Sam. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider the following two questions: (1) "[w]hether the duties a lawyer owes wrongful death statutory beneficiaries are governed by the Rules of Professional Conduct"; and (2) "[w]hether an adversarial relationship precludes only contract based malpractice claims and not independent tort claims." Upon review, the Supreme Court ruled that: (1) the Rules of Professional Conduct provide guidance in determining lawyers' obligations to their clients, and that the statutory beneficiary may sue the personal representative's attorney when the attorney harms the statutory beneficiary by failing to exercise reasonable skill and care during the attorney's representation of the personal representative; (2) the adversarial exception may preclude a malpractice action, whether it is in tort or in contract, and that in this case, the adversarial exception does not preclude Spencer's malpractice claim against Barber because there existed genuine issues of material fact regarding whether Barber failed to exercise reasonable skill and care in his representation of Sam as the personal representative, and if so, whether such failure harmed Spencer. View "Spencer v. Barber" on Justia Law

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In 2004, Amelia Martinez and Donald Espinoza were driving west on NM 502 toward Los Alamos to buy a car. Amelia, eight and a half months pregnant at the time, was driving and Donald was in the passenger seat. Tragically, they did not make it to Los Alamos. The New Mexico Department of Transportation (DOT), which has legal responsibility to maintain NM 502, was sued for negligently failing to remedy a dangerous condition when it chose not to replace the open center lane with crossover barriers on the road, after it was allegedly put on notice of that risk by post-construction accidents and other events. The Court of Appeals held as a matter of law that DOT was immune from suit for such negligence, a decision which the Supreme Court reversed "as being at odds with our jurisprudence." The case was remanded for a new trial. View "Martinez v. N.M. Dep't of Transp." on Justia Law

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Former priest of Rio Rancho St. Francis Episcopal Church Plaintiff Walter F. Smith, III brought a defamation action against St. Francis Vestry members Defendants Will Durden and William DeVries, and members of the parish Denise Durden and Marion DeVries. Plaintiff initiated this defamation action in 2006 after the publication of a packet of documents which, among other things, alluded to alleged sexual misconduct involving Plaintiff and minor parishioners. Defendant Will Durden had originally compiled the packet for a presentation before the Standing Committee of the Diocese of the Rio Grande by certain vestry members who desired the removal of Plaintiff from his position. The packet included documentation related to financial problems at St. Francis, an alleged lack of leadership shown by Plaintiff, and personal attacks against Plaintiff. One of the documents was an anonymous letter accusing Plaintiff of several acts of pedophilia. After the presentation before the Standing Committee, and at the recommendation of the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of the Rio Grande, Plaintiff disclosed a summary of the allegations to the congregation during a Sunday service. The issue before the Court was whether New Mexico requires a showing of injury to one's reputation to establish liability for defamation. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that it does, "as injury to reputation is the very essence of the tort of defamation. Evidence of humiliation and mental anguish, without evidence of actual injury to reputation, is insufficient to establish a cause of action for defamation." The Court reversed the Court of Appeals' reversal of the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Defendants.

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Dean Durand crashed his Ford Bronco into a motorcycle driven by Daniel Gutierrez, ultimately resulting in Gutierrez's death. Defendant admitted that while at the business establishment operated by Defendant Meteor Monument, L.L.C., he had consumed seven twelve-ounce cans of beer and a twenty-four-ounce can of malt liquor. He also testified that he ingested heroin and crack cocaine shortly before the accident. Gutierrez's estate and family successfully sued both Durand and Meteor for Gutierrez's wrongful death. Only the verdict against Meteor was at issue in this appeal. Upon review, the Supreme Court found that the circumstantial evidence presented at trial was sufficient for a jury to find that it was reasonably apparent to Meteor that Durand was intoxicated at the time he was last served alcohol. Furthermore, the trial court did not err in holding that Meteor was on notice that the negligent supervision claim included Durand as an employee. In addition, "scope of employment" may be a factor in a negligent supervision claim; both Gutierrez and Meteor requested a scope-of-employment instruction and agreed with the trial court's answers to the jury questions regarding that instruction. As a result, that error was invited, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion in rejecting Meteor's motion for a new trial. The Court remanded the case for the appellate court to address an unresolved issue regarding punitive damages.

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On December 12, 2002, Defendant Dr. Steven Wenrich delivered Plaintiff Cynthia Provencio's fourth child via caesarean section. Prior to surgery, Mrs. Provencio consented to Defendant contemporaneously performing a tubal ligation procedure on her sole fallopian tube because she did not wish to have additional children. After completing the surgeries, Defendant sent a portion of what he believed was ligated fallopian tube to a laboratory for analysis. The resulting pathology report revealed that the tissue Defendant had ligated was ligament, not fallopian tube, and Plaintiff still could conceive children. Since the Supreme Court issued "Lovelace Medical Center v. Mendez," (111 N.M. 336 (1991)) more than 20 years ago, the Court has not had an opportunity to clarify whether a doctor who negligently performs a tubal ligation procedure, but who then informs the patient of her continued fertility, may be sued for the future costs of raising a subsequently conceived child to the age of majority. Upon review, the Court held that those particular damages are only available when a doctor has breached a duty to inform. In this case, the Court of Appeals held otherwise, concluding that notice of continued fertility, or lack thereof, was merely a factor for the jury to consider as questions of causation and comparative fault. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and affirmed the district court's dismissal of this action.

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Through its opinion in this case, the Supreme Court addressed an exception in the New Mexico Workers' Compensation Act (the Act) that permitted compensation for injuries incurred in travel by employees when those injuries "[arose] out of and in the course of employment." Eloy Doporto, Jr., Mike Lucas, Jose Turrubiates, and Pete Rodriguez (collectively, the Workers), employed by Permian Drilling Corporation (Permian) and insured by American Home Assurance, were involved in an automobile accident while traveling to their work site, resulting in the death of Doporto and injuries to the others.  Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that the injuries suffered by the Workers arose out of and in the course of their employment because the travel was mutually beneficial to employees and employer and the Workers encountered special hazards unique to their employment while traveling, thus rendering the Workers "traveling employees" whose injuries are compensable under the Act.

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Siblings Michael and Desiree Mendoza attended a wedding reception at the Santa Ana Star Casino operated by Petitioner, Tamaya Enterprises, Inc. (the Casino), where they were served alcoholic beverages and became intoxicated.  Casino employees continued to serve Michael and Desiree alcohol despite their apparent intoxication.  Michael and Desiree left the Casino and were killed when their vehicle left the roadway and rolled over.  Suit was filed in state court against the Casino claiming that the Casino's delivery of alcohol to Michael and Desiree while they were obviously intoxicated was in violation of state law and proximately caused their deaths. The Casino sought to dismiss the suit, claiming the state court lacked jurisdiction over a dram shop action where the tavernkeeper's duty not to serve alcohol to an intoxicated person is imposed by tribal law, not state law, and where the tribal law contains a provision reserving exclusive jurisdiction to the tribal courts. The Court of Appeals issued an opinion reversing the district court's dismissal of the complaint and remanded for further proceedings. In this appeal, the Supreme Court addressed a question of state court jurisdiction in a dram shop action brought under the Tribal-State Class III Gaming Compact (the Compact), negotiated between the State of New Mexico and the Pueblo of Santa Ana pursuant to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. There was a conflict between Section 8 of the Compact which provides for state court jurisdiction where a casino visitor has been injured by the conduct of a casino, and Section 191 of the Pueblo of Santa Ana Liquor Ordinance, which reserves exclusive jurisdiction to tribal courts.  Upon review of the applicable legal authority, the Supreme Court concluded that New Mexico state courts properly exercise jurisdiction over casino visitors' personal injury claims pursuant to the Compact.  The second issue concerns the two types of common law dram shop claims:  claims brought by third parties injured by the conduct of the intoxicated patron against a tavernkeeper (third-party claims) and claims brought by the intoxicated patron against the tavernkeeper to recover for his own injuries (patron claims).  The Court considered the status of such common law claims following the codification of dram shop liability in the Liquor Control Act.  Due to the explicit language contained in the act that limits its application to taverns licensed under New Mexico law, the Court held that the Act was not intended to preempt all common law  claims.  Accordingly, because the Act does not preempt all common law claims, the common law recognizes an action by a third party against a tavernkeeper for over service of alcohol.  Therefore, the Court affirmed the result reached by the Court of Appeals and remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings.