Last year, the New Mexico Supreme Court reversed the dismissal of a case filed against the State of New Mexico by the families of two people killed in a December 9, 2004 head-on collision on New Mexico State Road 502 near Los Alamos.
The lawsuit alleges that the State was negligent in maintaining the road by failing to install a concrete barrier between the eastbound and westbound lanes of traffic on the two-mile stretch of SR 502 where the accident occurred. The plaintiffs claim that the State Department of Transportation knew of the unreasonable danger presented by the road, and they request that the State be ordered to pay damages to the families of the victims.
When the case was first heard in district court, the judge ruled that the State of New Mexico was immune from the lawsuit, and the case was dismissed. The plaintiffs appealed the ruling to the New Mexico Court of Appeals, but that Court agreed with the lower court’s dismissal of the case, and the plaintiffs were forced to appeal to the New Mexico Supreme Court. The 2013 decision in Martinez vs. New Mexico Department of Transportation, 296 P.3d 468, demonstrated the Court’s application of an exception to the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which protects the government and public employees from liability for negligence under certain circumstances.
What Is Sovereign Immunity?
The State as well as state employees have sovereign immunity from tort liability as part of a long-standing tradition of government immunity that was codified into law when the state Legislature passed the Tort Claims Act in 1976.
The Act established a general immunity for the State, all state agencies, and their employees for incidents that occur while the employee is acting within the scope of his or her employment. The Act did however contain exceptions under which the government or a state agency could be sued.
The plaintiffs attempted to use an exception that allows the state to be sued for injury or death caused by the negligence of public employees during the maintenance of a roadway. The defendants maintained the same argument that prevailed at the lower courts and claimed that the plaintiffs’ claims were based on the negligent design of the roadway, and not negligent maintenance. Damages from negligent design of a roadway do not fit into any of the exceptions in the Act, and the lower courts dismissed the claim on that basis.
On Appeal to the State Supreme Court
On the final appeal, the Supreme Court reviewed past cases that have applied the Tort Claims Act and found that the term “roadway maintenance” should be construed broadly when determining if the government is immune from responsibility for negligence.
The Court found that the government’s alleged failure to take remedial measures after noticing an unreasonable danger on the section of roadway concerns maintenance of the roadway as contemplated in the Act, and ruled that the New Mexico Department of Transportation was not immune from liability if it is found to have been negligent in maintaining the road. This decision does not mean that the plaintiffs have won, only that the case will go back to the district court for trial, where a judge or jury will decide if the State should be held liable.
Although the plaintiffs here were eventually victorious and their case can go to trial, the amount of time and effort spent in obtaining this result has been substantial. Not all plaintiffs are able to fight through two appeals and wait for over 10 years after the death of a loved one to have their case heard by a jury. Many victims whose cases are dismissed in district court have the law on their side and should prevail on appeal, but unfortunately they may be unable to afford the prolonged battle of appeal and never receive the compensation they deserve. The best way for a plaintiff to ensure a fair result from early in a case is to obtain the most competent legal counsel available as soon after an accident as possible.
Have You Been Injured in a New Mexico Accident?
If you or a loved one has been injured or killed in an Albuquerque car accident, the personal injury lawyers at The Fine Law Firm can help you with your case. The New Mexico accident attorneys at our firm have the experience to give your case the best chance of success from the very beginning. Even if the injury or death was caused by the negligence of a government employee, we might be able to help. The Fine Law Firm represents clients in a variety of New Mexico negligence cases, including auto accidents and wrongful death. Call today at (585) 889-3463 or reach us online to schedule a free consultation.
More Blog Posts:
Number of Pedestrian Deaths in Albuquerque Hits Yearly Average with More than Three Months Remaining in 2014, New Mexico Truck Accident Lawyer Blog, September 12, 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.