In New Mexico, when a person dies as a result of another party's accidental or intentional action, the deceased person's estate could be eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In this article, we'll look at several key parts of the laws that apply to wrongful death claims in New Mexico, including the state's definition of "wrongful death," who is allowed to bring this kind of case to court, the time limits New Mexico law imposes on filing wrongful death claims, and the damages available if the claim succeeds.
Under New Mexico law, a "wrongful death" is a death that is "caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another" that, if the person had lived, would have allowed him or her to file a personal injury lawsuit. (N.M. Stat. § 41-2-1 (2021).) So it can be helpful to think of a wrongful death claim in New Mexico as a personal injury claim that the deceased person is no longer able to bring him or herself. Instead, someone else must bring the claim to court to establish the defendant's liability and seek damages.
Many types of events can be the basis for a wrongful death lawsuit, including:
As in other types of personal injury lawsuits, the defendant's liability in a successful wrongful death case is expressed solely in terms of financial compensation ("damages") that the court orders the defendant to pay to the deceased person's survivors or estate. This is one major difference between a wrongful death lawsuit and a criminal homicide case, where a conviction can result in jail or prison time, fines paid to the state, probation, and other penalties.
Another big difference between a criminal prosecution for homicide and a wrongful death civil lawsuit: In a criminal case, the accused's guilt must be established "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is a very high bar for the prosecution to clear. In a civil lawsuit, the defendant's liability must be shown only "by a preponderance of the evidence," meaning it's more likely than not that the defendant is responsible for the death. It is possible, though, for a single act to result in criminal charges and a wrongful death claim: A defendant can be sued for wrongful death in civil court while facing criminal charges related to the same death.
Get more details about proving liability in a wrongful death case.
Some states' laws allow the deceased person's surviving family members to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In New Mexico, however, a wrongful death claim must be filed by the personal representative (sometimes called the "executor") of the deceased person's estate. In most cases, the personal representative will be a person named in the deceased's estate plan. If the personal representative cannot or will not serve, or if there is no estate plan, the court will appoint someone to serve.
Learn more about who has the legal right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
New Mexico, like all states, limits the amount of time a plaintiff has to file a wrongful death claim under a law called a "statute of limitations." In New Mexico, wrongful death cases must be filed within three years of the date of the death. (N.M. Stat. § 41-2-2 (2021).) If the claim is not filed before the statute of limitations expires, the deceased's personal representative will most likely lose the right to file the lawsuit.
In a successful wrongful death lawsuit, the court orders the defendant to pay "damages"—or the plaintiff's claimed losses—to the deceased person's survivors or estate. In New Mexico, damages that are typically available in a wrongful death claim include:
Although the personal representative must file the wrongful death lawsuit, any damages awarded are held by the estate for the benefit of surviving family members, as follows:
If the deceased person has no spouse or children or is a child under age 18, the child's parents will receive the damages. If there are no surviving parents, damages will go to the deceased person's siblings, whether the deceased is a child or an adult.
(N.M. Stat. § 41-2-3 (2021).)
Wrongful death cases can be complicated—and the law can change at any time. If you're thinking of filing a wrongful death lawsuit in New Mexico, it's a good idea to consult a personal injury attorney who can explain how the law applies to your specific situation.