If you are injured in New Mexico, you have the opportunity to sue the person responsible for any damages you sustain. Despite the cultural stereotypes surrounding personal injury law, this is not a path to easy money. Rather, it is part of a legal system designed with an eye toward justice, to make you whole and hold the right people accountable for your losses. The process requires careful legal analysis and attention to the facts of your individual case. It gives you the opportunity to recover the damages that someone else caused you to sustain. Below are some important considerations if you think you may have an injury lawsuit.
Statute of Limitations—The First Threshold
Statutes of limitations are extremely important for your case. Before you can litigate your case, you have to file on time. Memories are not always reliable, and the more time passes, the less likely your witnesses, the defendant, or even you will remember the facts of your personal injury with any clarity. For this reason, every lawsuit comes with a statute of limitations, or a limit to the time frame in which you can file a cause of action. These limits vary both by the state in which you are suing and the kind of case you bring.
In New Mexico, different types of lawsuits have different statutes of limitations. The statute of limitations for a personal injury lawsuit against a private citizen or company is three years. This means that, from the date of your injury, you have exactly three years in which to file a lawsuit. You have some time to meet with an attorney, gather information, make sure you are suing the right person or people, and start to prepare. Still, the sooner you get started, the less you have to worry about the limitations period. Your attorney needs time to investigate, research, and draft your complaint before the statute runs out. And the fresher the experience is in your mind, the more likely you will be to remember all of the important information you need.
Finally, if your case involves a government agency or entity, the statute of limitations is shorter and other deadlines must be considered too, such as a “tort claim notice,” which is a notice letter that must be sent to the government within 90 days of your injury. These lawsuits are governed by a different statute entirely, so you need to be careful. If any part of your damages was caused by the negligence or recklessness of a government agent, you need to file your complaint early or lose your potential cause of action.
In all, your case’s statute of limitations is extremely important, and it’s best to talk to a lawyer immediately after you or someone close to you sustains an injury caused by another person.
Someone Owed You a Duty of Care
There are a few elements to each injury case that must be present in order to file suit and recover for your injuries. Duty of care is the first element. Once you file your complaint within the required time frame, you can get to proving the elements of your claim. The fact that you were injured in an accident is not enough; you must be able to show that someone in a position to keep you from being injured failed to do so. In legal terms, you have to show first that the person or organization you are suing owed you a duty of care.
When we think of duties, we generally think of responsibilities we have to our families, employers, and governments. But every day, you engage in activities in which you owe something to those around you, and in which others owe something to you. There are endless examples, but some common duties include the following:
- Drivers have a duty to obey traffic rules;
- Store owners and managers have a duty to keep the premises safe for employees and customers;
- Home owners have a duty to keep their homes safe for guests;
- Restaurant owners, managers, and employees have a duty to prepare food safely; and
- People have a duty to refrain from violence against each other.
In everything you do, you have the ability to affect those around you. When laws and regulations require people to do certain things or avoid other behaviors, those laws and regulations create duties of care.
That Person Breached the Duty of Care
The existence of a duty is the first element of a personal injury claim, but it is not enough by itself. If you are driving, other drivers have a duty to drive safely and responsibly. But if you hit a patch of ice and slide off the road, that does not show that the other drivers failed you. You cannot sue the driver of the car in front of you for an accident if the other driver did nothing wrong. If you look at a person while you are passing by, and injure yourself because you are not paying attention to where you are going, the other person has likely not breached his or her duty of care.
On the other hand, if another driver runs a red light, and that act causes you to either crash into the car or crash when you swerve to avoid impact, the other driver has breached his or her duty of care to you. Similarly, if someone attacks you unprovoked, that person has breached a duty of care with regard to how people are supposed to interact. In those cases, the other person’s actions directly violate their duties to you.
Finally, some duties are not necessarily clear. If you are playing football, violent collisions are part of the game. An injury during the course of the game likely does not give rise to a personal injury lawsuit, even if a flawed technique or penalized hit caused your injury. But what if another player punches you after the game? What if a fan throws something and injures you? Here, you have the potential to establish breaches of a duty to you, and thus areas that could give rise to a personal injury suit.
The Breach of Duty Caused You Damages
Causation often provides a major point of contention in a lawsuit. If someone acted in a way he or she should not have acted, and in doing so violated a duty to you, the potential for a lawsuit is there, but that violation has to be the cause—or a cause—of some damage to you. Again, the purpose of a personal injury lawsuit is both to compensate you for the damages you sustain and to hold liable the person or people who caused those damages.
In some cases, this is relatively straightforward. If a person drives a vehicle into you when you are stopped at a traffic light and you get hurt, that person’s actions cause your injuries and damage to your car. But what if a car hits you from behind, pushes you into traffic, and leads to your being hit by a driver who would have seen you but was distracted by a text message? Two different drivers have violated duties to you, and determining who caused you to sustain injuries from the accident will make a difference in whether you can succeed against one or both of the other drivers.
Demonstrating the Value of Damages
Finally, you have to find a way to put a price on the losses you have sustained. A jury will look at evidence of what you have gone through and what you have lost, and assign a monetary value to all of your losses. This includes some easily identifiable costs: repair costs for any property you have to fix as a result of the accident; fair market value for anything destroyed; and the cost of medical bills you have to pay. The more information you can gather on these clear costs, the better your claim for damages will be.
Other costs are a little harder. Did you suffer severe pain? Have you lost a finger or a toe? What are the value of those losses to you? You may lose the ability to do your job, requiring you to either do something for less pay or quit working. If that is the case, you need a way to quantify your lost wages not only now, but into the future as well. You may become unable to walk, do household work, enjoy the company of your spouse, or play with your children.
Many of the losses you might incur are things on which you would never think to put a price. You take them for granted until you don’t have them, and you then have to learn to live without them. Claiming damages to make you whole again in the face of these losses can seem difficult and even absurdly analytical. But when someone causes you injuries that take so much away, you are entitled to recover, and a jury will be tasked with determining what you deserve based on the losses you demonstrate.
One final piece of the puzzle for determining damages is comparative negligence. Many injuries occur through some combination of fault. If you are in a bar fight and the other fighter injures you, you may be partly to blame for what happened. When you are driving, you and the other driver may both have made some error that led to the accident. To assign liability to someone for your injury without taking into account anything you did would be unfair, so New Mexico personal injury law considers all the circumstances surrounding an injury.
One area in which this comes into play enters when you injure yourself on something that you should have seen and avoided. If you see an obstacle in your walkway and try to jump over it rather than walking around it, you are at least partly to blame for injuring yourself when you fall. If you walk directly past a wet floor sign or engage a snarling dog that you could have avoided, you similarly may bear some part of the blame.
If a jury determines that you are, to some degree at fault, the jury will reduce your damages award by the percentage it finds you to be at fault. For example, if your personal injury and property damages total $100,000, but the jury determines you are 25% to blame for what happened, it will reduce your recovery to $75,000. This again fits with the legal goal of achieving justice for your injury claim; the defendant should only be liable for the part of your damages that he or she caused.
When your case goes to trial, the defendant will usually seek to assign as much responsibility as possible to you. Everything you did that day, every personal habit you have, and every element of your injury itself, will fall under scrutiny. The defense attorney’s goal becomes twofold: to demonstrate that his or her client is not responsible for the injuries you sustained, and to show that you bear much of the blame for what happened to you. The more clearly you understand the evidence, the more effectively you and your attorney can define the other party’s conduct as the sole or primary cause—and the greater your potential recovery becomes.
The Purpose of Personal Injury Law
Every element of a personal injury claim matters, because all of it moves a lawsuit toward its goal of delivering justice for the people involved. You have a right to expect others to fulfill their legal duties of care to you and to others around you. The defendant, in turn, has a right to tell his or her side of the story, and to hold you accountable for your own mistakes that either helped cause your injuries or helped exacerbate them. A trial or a settlement in lieu of trial exists to help enforce everyone’s rights, help the truth emerge, and help make you financially whole for what happened.
The attorneys on both sides become experts on both the facts of the case and the law that interprets how those facts lead to a proper verdict. Hiring an attorney who can both understand your personal claim and fight vociferously for your right to recovery is critical to allowing the whole system to accomplish what it is supposed to do. The information you provide the attorney helps him or her get started down the path to your legal recovery. This operates to help you get the recovery you deserve, and help your entire community by pushing everyone to maintain their responsibilities to others.