What Happened in the Car Crash Case
In June 2011, a FedEx contractor driving a FedEx Ground Package System, Inc. tractor-trailer crashed into a small pickup truck. The crash occurred in the hours before dawn. The pickup was moving slowly or stopped in the right-hand lane on Interstate 10, with its flashers activated. The semi then struck the pickup at 65 miles per hour. Evidence showed that the driver of the semi did not attempt to brake before the crash.
Two of the occupants of the pickup, the driver and her four-year-old daughter, died as a result of the crash. The third occupant, the driver’s 19-month-old son, suffered injuries. The driver of the FedEx vehicle also died as a result of the crash.
The driver’s husband and her father filed suit. A Santa Fe jury awarded a total of $165 million in damages, which included $0 in punitive damages.
The Case on Appeal
FedEx presented two arguments to the New Mexico Court of Appeals. First, FedEx argued that the $165 million damages award was excessive. Second, FedEx argued that the trial court should have granted a new trial.
FedEx first argued that the total $165 million verdict was excessive. The company also noted that it was the largest award of its type in New Mexico’s history. FedEx did not try to argue that each element of the award was excessive. Rather, FedEx claimed that the $165 million total was too much.
New Mexico law allows for a new trial to be ordered if the damages award in a case is so disproportionate to the injuries suffered that the award “shock[s] the conscience.” FedEx argued that this award met that criteria. Therefore, according to FedEx, a new trial should be ordered.
The original judge in the trial court recused herself from the case after the initial trial and verdict. She then left the evaluation of FedEx’s request for a new trial in the hands of a successor. After five months of reviewing pleadings, testimony, and trial records, the successor judge denied FedEx’s request for a new trial.
FedEx appealed the decision to the New Mexico Supreme Court, seeking a new trial. The state Supreme Court declined to order a new trial. Instead, the court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision.
Writing for a unanimous New Mexico Supreme Court, Justice Julie J. Vargas stated that “substantial evidence supported the verdict and that the jury’s award was not the result of passion or prejudice.”
How the Car Crash Verdict Applies
The $165 million total verdict consists of several smaller damages awards. All of the damage awards arise from the facts of the accident and the resulting deaths and injuries. The total award includes:
- $32 million to the estate of the deceased pickup driver
- $61 million to the estate of her deceased four-year-old daughter
- $32 million to the injured 19-month-old
- $40.125 million to the husband of the deceased driver and father of the two children
In a wrongful death case, damages to the estate and survivors typically address different types of losses. Damages to the estate compensate the estate for costs associated with the death. These damages can range from funeral and burial expenses to wages lost due to the sudden end of a deceased person’s working life. On the other hand, damages paid to survivors seek to address survivors’ specific losses. This can include the loss of a loved one’s companionship, care, and support.
What to Expect in Future Accident Claims
On appeal, FedEx then argued that the $165 million verdict was the result of “passion or prejudice” on the part of the jury. FedEx based this argument on three instances at trial. One instance was the emotional testimony of the surviving spouse of the pickup driver and the father of the children in the pickup. The second instance was an accident scene photo that showed the jury a portion of the pickup driver’s arm. The third instance was a claim by the plaintiffs’ lawyer during closing arguments that the defendant “took no responsibility.”
The state Supreme Court then rejected FedEx’s argument that these instances fostered unacceptable “passion or prejudice” in the jury’s decision to award $165 million. The Court found that the testimony was “the result of genuine emotional response.” The Court also found that the record showed no “prejudicial reaction” from the jury. The portion of the photo in which the driver’s arm was visible was small. There was “nothing gruesome” about it in the Court’s view. Finally, the Court found that “any potential prejudicial effect the closing argument here may have had on the jury was offset by the district court’s instruction to the jury that closing arguments of counsel are not evidence.”
The New Mexico case thus provides illustrations as to what types of evidence and courtroom events may foster “passion or prejudice” among jurors and lead to a verdict that “shock[s] the conscience.” Accident claims, particularly wrongful death claims, can be emotionally difficult, even distasteful, to explore during trial. Yet aversion or grief are not enough to claim a resulting verdict is impermissible. A clearer impact of passion, prejudice, or shock are required.