The Supreme Court of New Mexico has reversed a lower court’s holding that the New Mexico Department of Transportation (DOT) is immune as a matter of law from being sued for negligently failing to remedy a purportedly dangerous road condition. In Martinez v. N.M. Dep’t of Transp., the family of a couple who was killed in a 2004 head-on traffic accident on NM 502 near Los Alamos filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the DOT claiming the agency committed negligence when it failed to construct a barrier between oncoming traffic near mile marker 9. In the 1980s, a concrete barrier was reportedly installed on other stretches of the roadway in order to keep similar accidents from occurring but one was not installed where the fatal collision occurred.
Prior to trial, the DOT filed a motion for summary judgment claiming the agency was not responsible for the crash pursuant to the New Mexico Tort Claims Act. According to the DOT, the decision to install a two-way turn lane instead of a barrier despite that there were reportedly no intersecting roads onto which traffic could turn was a design decision that provided the agency with immunity under the Act. At trial, the victims’ family was not permitted to introduce evidence regarding a number of other accidents that occurred at the same location or the numerous citizen complaints that were filed with the DOT regarding the allegedly unsafe roadway. After a jury returned a verdict in favor of the DOT, a New Mexico Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict. The victims’ family then appealed the case to the Supreme Court of New Mexico.
New Mexico’s high court stated that although the DOT was initially granted immunity related to barrier placement on NM 502, notice regarding a dangerous condition could trigger a maintenance issue that the agency may be held responsible for. The court continued by stating the safety of New Mexico motorists would be thwarted by providing the agency with perpetual design immunity. The court also said whether the DOT had sufficient notice of the allegedly dangerous road condition to trigger the maintenance exception to design immunity was a question for a jury. Finally, the Supreme Court of New Mexico reversed and remanded the case for a new trial.
Sadly, motorists and passengers are killed on highways and other roads located throughout New Mexico each day. Although traffic wrecks may be caused by impaired, careless, or simply distracted drivers, they may also result from hazardous or poorly maintained roadways. Car accident victims may be eligible to receive compensation for their medical bills, lost wages, pain, suffering, and any disability that resulted from the wreck. Additionally, those who lost a close relative in a New Mexico traffic crash may be able to collect damages for loss of support and funeral expenses. If your beloved family member was killed in an automobile collision, you should contact a qualified wrongful death attorney.