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New Mexico Supreme Court Holds Workers’ Compensation is the Exclusive Remedy for Surviving Spouse of Worker Fatally Injured in Workplace Accident

| Mar 8, 2017 | Personal Injury

After a fatal accident at work, the wife of the deceased worker pursued a claim for damages against the employer’s insurance company.  The issue before the New Mexico Supreme Court was whether a worker injured in the course of employment by a co-worker could recover damages under the employer’s uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage.  The question was framed by what the court labeled as a “discontinuity” between the language of the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA) and the Uninsured Motorist statute.  In other words, the Court’s decision was intended to address inconsistencies in case law concerning the remedies and legislative intent provided by both statutes.

The facts of this case indicate that while at the workplace, an employee was fatally struck by a metal beam that fell off a forklift.  A coworker had left the forklift unattended to check that the beam was secure, and it slid off the forks and hit the employee.  On behalf of her deceased husband (the employee), the plaintiff in this case received workers’ compensation benefits as well as uninsured motorist benefits set forth under his car insurance policy.

The plaintiff was then denied uninsured motorist benefits under the employer’s automobile insurance policy, based on the exclusivity of the WCA.  She sued the insurance company. They moved to dismiss the case, and the federal court first denied the motion, on the ground that the WCA was not intended to preclude injured workers from securing additional compensation. Then, they reconsidered and vacated the order, on the basis that the employee had been killed in an accident caused by a coworker, rather than a third party. The lower court then certified the question to the state Supreme Court.

Turning to the statutes, the state Supreme Court stated that the WCA immunizes employers and their representatives from tort liability for workplace injuries.  The Uninsured Motorist statute benefits people legally entitled to recover damages from owners or operators of uninsured motor vehicles.  Here, the question was whether the plaintiff could recover damages under the employer’s insurance policy, according to the Uninsured Motorist statute.

The plaintiff argued that the Uninsured Motorist statute serves to expand uninsured motorist coverage, protecting innocent victims, and should outweigh the WCA’s purpose of balancing tort liability and workers’ compensation.

In this case, the court stated that the actions of a coworker caused the fatality, rather than a third-party uninsured tortfeasor.  Unlike the case cited by the plaintiff, in which a plaintiff-employee was injured while driving an employer-owned car and colliding with a third-party uninsured driver, in this case the tortfeasor was a coworker.  The WCA provided an exclusive remedy here.

Furthermore, the court stated an employee injured in a workplace accident that is caused by an employer or its representative can only seek a remedy under the WCA. Therefore, under the WCA, the employee cannot recover damages under the Uninsured Motorist statute.  The plaintiff cannot recover damages from the employer as well as the tortfeasor and the holder of the uninsured motorist policy.

According to the Supreme Court, injured individuals seeking remedies through a personal injury claim may be limited in their recovery based on the location and nature of the accident. A skilled injury attorney can help you understand your rights following an accident in Albuquerque or elsewhere in New Mexico. If you or someone close to you has suffered injuries due to the careless or reckless conduct of another party, they can be held legally responsible for the resulting harm. Wrongful death attorney Matt Vance works to recover maximum compensation on behalf of clients throughout the state. Phone our office for a complimentary, no-obligation consultation today. We can be reached by calling 505-445-1604 or using our online form.

More Blog Posts:

New Mexico Supreme Court Holds that Fraudulent Concealment May Apply to Wrongful Death Actions; Defendants Cannot Benefit from Concealing a Cause of Action and Asserting the Statute of Limitations as a Defense, New Mexico Injury Lawyer Blog, February 21, 2017

New Mexico Appellate Court Holds Statute of Limitations Bars Plaintiff’s Claim Against Unlicensed Builder for Injuries Suffered in Fall from Vacation Home Deck, New Mexico Injury Lawyer Blog, January 19, 2017