When a claimant alleges injuries stemming from an automobile accident, it has the opportunity to assert a personal injury claim against the insurance company providing coverage to the party who caused the accident. If no agreement can be reached between the claimant – or his or her personal injury attorney – and the insurance company, that injured party can then file suit against the person responsible for the accident so long as it is filed before the expiration of the statute of limitations (which, in New Mexico, is 3 years from the date of the accident).
Once suit is filed, there are at least 3 mandatory stages of the litigation where no settlement occurs terminating the proceedings. The first is the pleadings stage where the plaintiff states his or her claims against the defendant(s) and the defendant raises its affirmative defenses against those claims. In both cases, these are merely assertions, not evidence, but they are important as they establish the parameters of what the case involves. The second stage is the discovery process which each party must answer specific questions or interrogatories, provide documentation to their adversaries, admit or deny certain facts or omissions and, if requested, submit to oral depositions before a court reporter under oath. Unlike the pleading stage, the information garnered during this part of the litigation does constitute evidence which can be cited as proof in support of the allegations framing the claims and defenses in the case. Finally, there is a trial where no settlement occurs terminating the proceedings before that stage is reached.
But if one of the parties so decides, it can move for summary judgment possibly short-circuiting the case before it reaches trial. To prevail on a summary judgment, the party moving for such a judgment must demonstrate that there exists no genuine issue of material fact which can support either the plaintiff’s claim or the defendant’s affirmative defenses. A defendant can move for summary judgment at the end of the discovery phase if it seeks to have the plaintiff’s case – or at least some of its claims – thrown out of court without a trial. Likewise, a plaintiff can have a defendant’s affirmative defenses eliminated provided it can show there has been no evidence produced supporting one or all of the defenses.
In the recent New Mexico auto accident case of Crabtree v. Mantel, No. CIV 13-0411 KBM/RHS (Dist. Court, D. N. M. 2014), the plaintiff who was a passenger in a shuttle bus when the defendant’s vehicle ran a red lightand struck the bus, filed for summary judgment alleging that defendant’s 3 affirmative efenses lacked any evidentiary support. The first affirmative defense claimed that the plaintiff’s injuries may have been caused by other parties and the second claimed that she failed to mitigate her own damages by exercising due care for her own health care in the wake of the accident. By showing that there was absolutely no evidence established during the discovery process which supported either defense, she was able to convince the District Court to throw out those defenses by summary judgment. The Court did find, with regard to a third affirmative defense that the accident was caused by unforeseen circumstances not within Defendant’s control, that Defendant’s own verified statement to that effect was enough to maintain the defense for use at trial.
The net result is that the Plaintiff will, by virtue of moving for summary judgment, have a much better chance of winning at trial – or induce a more favorable settlement – because she has fewer defenses that could undermine her case. By calling the Defendant’s hand – requiring him to show in the context of the optional summary judgment phase what evidence he had produced – the Plaintiff partially succeeded in got closer to winning her case. Now the Defendant may be limited to arguing there was some unforeseen event which caused his conduct. While the Plaintiff has yet to win her case, her use of the summary judgment motion brings her closer to that outcome.
The attorneys at Giddens & Gatton Law, PC represent individuals in automobile accident cases in New Mexico. Giddens & Gatton Law, PC is located at 10400 Academy Road N.E., Suite 350 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Call the office at (505) 633-6298 to set up an appointment or visit the firm’s website at giddenslaw.com for more information