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New Mexico Court of Appeals Reverses Grant of Summary Judgment to Lumber Company in Personal Injury Lawsuit

On Behalf of | Feb 10, 2021 | Personal Injury

A recent opinion by the New Mexico Court of Appeals, Salas v. Clark Equipment Company, reverses the district court’s grant of summary judgment to a lumber company that had been named as one of the defendants in the plaintiffs’ personal injury suit.  The plaintiffs/appellants included a widow, children and grandchildren.  They sued the lumber company and other defendants following the death of their loved one, seeking damages based on the decedent having allegedly been exposed to products containing respirable asbestos as part of his work in home construction and as a miner and mechanic.

In 2013 the decedent was diagnosed with lung cancer.  He died later that year.  According to the Court of Appeals, over the course of the several years since the decedent’s passing, there was litigation that resulted in the plaintiffs achieving settlements with most of the defendants.  The lumber company and three other defendants did not settle with the plaintiffs.  They filed summary judgment motions, asserting that they were entitled to judgment in their favor as a matter of law.  After the defendants won, the plaintiffs appealed.

On appeal, three out of four defendants won again when the Court of Appeals upheld the summary judgment rulings in their favor.  But the Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment with respect to the lumber company defendant.

Under New Mexico law, it is proper for a court to grant summary judgment when there are no genuine issue of material fact.  The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case for summary judgment.  If successful then the non-moving party or parties, here the plaintiffs, need to demonstrate the existence of specific evidentiary facts which would require trial on the merits.  If the non-moving party is unable to make this showing then a court can grant summary judgment in favor of the party moving for summary judgment.

In this case, the lumber company argued, among other things, that the plaintiffs had failed to come forward with evidence or witnesses showing that an asbestos-containing product from this defendant had sickened the decedent. The lower court and the appellate court were of the view that the lumber company established a case for summary judgment, shifting the burden to the plaintiffs to show facts requiring a trial.   The lower court was suspicious of affidavits presented by the plaintiffs as part of their attempts to avoid entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendants.  The lower court characterized the documents as “self-serving, not reliable and an attempt to create sham issues of fact.”  But the appellate court did not construe the affidavits the same way.

The appellate court was not persuaded that the plaintiffs intended to create sham issues of fact.  The appellate court’s review of the record showed, among other things, that the affidavits contained specific time frames and products and that the plaintiffs had made amendments to discovery responses that were contradictory. Accordingly, the appellate court reversed the grant of summary judgment to the lumber company insofar as it treated the plaintiffs’ affidavits as sham affidavits, and remanded the case back to the lower court whose ruling was reversed on appeal with instructions to enter clear findings of fact and conclusions of law concerning whether the plaintiffs had produced evidence showing exposure to the lumber company’s products was a cause of the harm suffered by the plaintiffs’ decedent.

If you or someone you love has been hurt in an accident, you may be entitled to receive a monetary award for damages.  Being compensated monetarily following an injury can help people and their loved ones recover out-of-pocket costs resulting from the accident, including medical bills and lost wages. Litigating a personal injury case can be complicated.  We can help.  To understand more about your case and how it can be pursued to maximize your financial recovery, call New Mexico personal injury lawyer Matthew Vance. At the Law Office of Matthew Vance, P.C., we provide a free consultation and can be reached at 505-445-1604 or send us a message online.