This article examines several key parts of New Mexico law that may affect a wrongful death claim. We'll start with the state's definition of "wrongful death", and we'll also look at who may bring this kind of case to court. We'll finish with a look at New Mexico's time limits for filing wrongful death claims and the damages available if such a claim succeeds.
New Mexico Statutes section 41-2-1 defines a wrongful death as one that is "caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another." The definition includes deaths caused by a wrongful act that amounts to a felony under New Mexico law.
One way to think of a wrongful death claim in New Mexico is as a personal injury claim that the deceased person is no longer able to bring him or herself. Instead, the survivors of the deceased person must bring the claim to court, to establish the defendant's liability and to seek damages.
In some wrongful death cases, a tribal, state, or federal prosecutor will pursue criminal charges for homicide against the party that is believed to have caused the death. If a criminal case is filed, a wrongful death claim may still be brought to civil court. Because a criminal case can affect a wrongful death claim in several ways, however, it is wise to consult an attorney with experience in New Mexico wrongful death law if a criminal case is proceeding on the same facts.
In New Mexico, a wrongful death claim must be filed by the personal representative of the deceased person's estate. In most cases, the personal representative will be a person named in the deceased's estate plan: surviving spouses are common choices for personal representative, as are adult siblings. If the personal representative named in the estate plan cannot or will not serve, or if there is no estate plan, the court will appoint a personal representative.
Although the personal representative is responsible for filing the wrongful death claim, any damages awarded as a result of the claim are held by the estate for the benefit of surviving family members:
If the deceased person has no spouse or children or is a child under age 18, the child's parents receive the damages awarded in a successful wrongful death suit. If there are no surviving parents, damages go to the deceased person's siblings, whether the deceased is a child or adult.
New Mexico Statutes section 41-2-2 specifies that a wrongful death claim must be filed within three years of the date of the deceased's death. This law, or "statute of limitations," effectively bars wrongful death claims that are filed in court more than three years from the date of death. Because certain factors may "toll" or pause the running of the three-year time period, if you are running up against the filing deadline, it is best to consult an attorney to determine exactly how the statute of limitations will affect a particular case.
Damages may be awarded in a wrongful death claim if the defendant's liability is properly established in court. In some cases, the types of damages that are available to certain individuals depends on their relationship to the deceased person. Damages that are typically available in a New Mexico wrongful death claim include:
In some New Mexico wrongful death claims, punitive damages are available. Punitive damages are unlike ordinary damages because they are not intended to compensate the family or the estate for its losses. Instead, punitive damages are awarded to punish particularly egregious actions, such as intentional harm, recklessness, or gross negligence.