Caps in New Mexico Medical Malpractice Claims Against the Government: No Wiggle Room for Multiple Beneficiaries

In New Mexico, there are caps on both medical malpractice claims and claims against the government. These caps are highly detrimental to injured plaintiffs and undermine the right to a jury guaranteed under the 7th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, the caps are routinely upheld in New Mexico and beyond.

Most recently, in Lajeuenesse v. Board of Regents of the University of New Mexico, the New Mexico Supreme Court addressed the maximum liability of a government entity in a wrongful death action when there is one deceased victim and several beneficiaries.

Lajeunesse was a wrongful death brought by a man’s estate based on negligent medical care by the University of New Mexico Hospital. The jury awarded the plaintiff’s estate damages of $750,000. The defendants motioned to reduce the injuries, which the trial court granted, and the damages were reduced to $400,000 plus medical costs of $13,032. The trial court relied upon the language of the New Mexico Tort Claims Act, limiting recovery to $400,000.

The New Mexico Wrongful Death Act allows a family member, or another person close to the victim, to bring a lawsuit for a wrongful or negligent act resulting in the victim’s death. In this case, the victim’s spouse had already passed, so the Wrongful Death Act states that the monetary judgment should be distributed to the victim’s children.

The New Mexico Tort Claims Act provides exceptions to the government’s immunity from lawsuits. Pertinent to this case, the Tort Claims Act waives immunity for wrongful death caused by the negligence of public employees acting within the scope of their duties. However, the Tort Claims Act limits the liability of a government agency to $400,000 for any number of claims arising out of a single occurrence for all damages other than property damage and medical expenses and $750,000 for all claims other than medical expenses arising out of a single event.

The court first examined the interaction between Wrongful Death Act and the Tort Claims Act to determine if this matter is a single claim or multiple claims, which would decide if the damages were limited to $400,000 or $750,000.

The court first noted that the Tort Claims Act provides an exception to the government’s liability for wrongful death cases. It then explained that the Wrongful Death Act allows a personal representative to bring a lawsuit against the illegal party. Then the Wrongful Death Act states that the damages award should be distributed to the deceased person’s beneficiaries. The personal representative is distinct from the statutory beneficiaries. The personal representative is the only person claiming the government.

The court found that the person addressed in the Tort Claims Act limitations is the personal representative because they can only file the claim. The statutory beneficiaries are not bringing a claim.

The court did not believe that the New Mexico Legislature intended the damage limitations to depend on the number of beneficiaries a deceased victim had. According to the court, there is only one dead person in a wrongful death action, so the number of beneficiaries is immaterial.

Medical malpractice claims are complex. Those involving governmental medical providers come with additional issues. Some deadlines and requirements are unique to medical malpractice claims and claims against the government. It is essential to seek the guidance of an experienced personal injury attorney as soon as possible to ensure you do not miss any critical deadline or other requirements.

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