New Mexico Supreme Court News:
SANTA FE — The state Supreme Court today upheld a $165 million jury verdict against FedEx in a southern New Mexico traffic crash that killed a mother and daughter and seriously injured her a toddler.
In a unanimous opinion written by Judge Julie J. Vargas, the state’s highest court found that “substantial evidence supported the verdict and that the jury’s decision was not the result of passion or prejudice.” .
The Court refused to order a new trial in this case, upholding a decision of the Court of Appeal.
The accident happened in the predawn hours of June 22, 2011, on Interstate 10 between Las Cruces and Deming. A commercial truck with double trailers rammed the back of a small van driven by Marialy Morga. The tractor-trailer was operated by FedEx Ground Package System, Inc., (FedEx) and driven by a company contractor.
Morga and her 4-year-old daughter, Ylairam, were killed and her 19-month-old son, Yahir, was injured. They were on their way to visit her husband and the children’s father, Alfredo Morga, who worked in Deming. The driver of the tractor-trailer, Elizabeth Quintana, also died in the accident.
The van had its turn signals on and was either traveling slowly or had stopped in the right-hand lane heading west. The semi-trailer hit the pickup at 65 mph without braking before the accident.
Lawsuits have been brought by Mr. Morga and his father-in-law, Rene Venegas Lopez. A Santa Fe jury awarded compensatory damages of $61 million to the estate of Ylairam Morga, $32 million to the estate of Marialy Morga, $32 million to Yahir Morga and $40.125 million to Alfredo Morgan. No punitive damages were awarded.
On appeal, FedEx argued that the damages were excessive and that a new trial should have been granted by a district court judge who took over the case when the original judge recused himself after the trial. and the initial verdict. The successor judge refused a new trial after a review of more than 5 months of the pleadings, testimony and case file.
FedEx said the cumulative amount of $165 million in compensatory damages is the largest in New Mexico history for such a type of case. The Court noted that “the defendants do not attempt to explain why the award for each of the individual plaintiffs is excessive, but rather argue that the cumulative verdict is excessive”.
Under current law from previous court rulings, a new trial is appropriate if the damages are so disproportionate to the injuries “that they shock the conscience”.
The Court concluded: “Considering all the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, our deference to the jurors and our reluctance to make comparisons between the verdicts and between economic and non-economic damages, this Court cannot say that the weight of the evidence is clearly and manifestly against the verdict and that it would be an injustice to uphold the verdict.
The Court rejected FedEx’s arguments that the verdict was the product of “passion or prejudice” by the jury due to Alfredo Morga’s moving testimony, an accident scene photo showing part of the arm of Ms. Morga and statements by plaintiffs’ counsel during closing arguments.
“Alfredo Morga’s testimony was the result of a genuine emotional reaction, and nothing in the record indicates a prejudicial reaction on the part of the jury,” the court said. “The testimony appears to fit squarely with the general rule that such sincere emotion does not warrant a new trial.”
The section of the photo with the arm was supposed to be redacted, but the masking apparently fell off before the photo was seen by jurors. According to the Supreme Court, the photo focused primarily on the damaged vehicle and there was “nothing awful” about the small part of the photo which showed the arm with bruises and scratches but no blood.
During closing arguments, the attorney for the victims’ family members told the jury that FedEx sought to blame its contractors and “took no responsibility, just like they don’t have this whole lawsuit.” However, FedEx agreed during the trial to be liable for all damages awarded against the defendants.
The judges concluded that “the statements here were not inflammatory and that any potential prejudicial effect the closing argument may have had on the jury was outweighed by the district court’s instruction to the jury that the closing argument of the lawyer are not evidence”.
To read the decision in Morga versus FedEx# S-1-SC-36918, visit the New Mexico Compilation Commission website: https://nmonesource.com/nmos/nmsc/en/item/521114/index.do