1998 -NMSC- 31, Trujillo v. City of Albuquerque, s. 18296

CourtSupreme Court of New Mexico
Citation125 N.M. 721,965 P.2d 305,1998 NMSC 31
Docket Number19118,Nos. 18296,s. 18296
Parties, 1998 -NMSC- 31 Lawrence TRUJILLO, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. CITY OF ALBUQUERQUE, et al., Defendants-Appellants. Lisa M. ROGERS and the First National Bank of Albuquerque as Conservator for the Estate of Crystal Rogers, a minor, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CITY OF ALBUQUERQUE and Richard Aragon, Defendants-Appellees.
Decision Date08 September 1998

Page 305

965 P.2d 305
125 N.M. 721, 1998 -NMSC- 31
Lawrence TRUJILLO, Plaintiff-Appellee,
CITY OF ALBUQUERQUE, et al., Defendants-Appellants.
Lisa M. ROGERS and the First National Bank of Albuquerque as
Conservator for the Estate of Crystal Rogers, a
minor, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
CITY OF ALBUQUERQUE and Richard Aragon, Defendants-Appellees.
Nos. 18296, 19118.
Supreme Court of New Mexico.
Sept. 8, 1998.

Page 307

Duhigg, Cronin & Spring, David Duhigg, Helena Gorochow, Leon Thomas, Albuquerque, for Plaintiff-Appellee Trujillo.

Freedman, Boyd, Daniels, Peifer, Hollander, Guttman & Goldberg, Joseph Goldberg, Carpenter & Chavez, William H. Carpenter, David J. Stout, Albuquerque, for Plaintiff-Appellee Rogers.

Butt, Thornton & Baehr, Emily A. Franke, John A. Klecan, Albuquerque, for Defendant-Appellant City of Albuquerque.

Keleher & McLeod, P.A., Charles Pharris, Kurt Wihl, Albuquerque, for Defendant in Intervention, State of New Mexico, Risk Management Division.

Randall D. Van Vleck, Santa Fe, Stadtmauer Bailken, L.L.P., Steven Barshov, New York, NY, for Defendant in Intervention New Mexico Municipal League, Inc.

Miller, Stratvert & Torgerson, P.A., Alice Tomlinson Lorenz, Nancy Augustus, Albuquerque, for Amicus Curiae N.M. Medical Society.

Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb, P.A., Edward Ricco, Albuquerque, for Amicus Curiae Regents of University of New Mexico.

Coppler & Mannick, P.C., Gerald A. Coppler, Santa Fe, for Amicus Curiae New Mexico Public Schools Insurance Authority.

Modrall, Sperling, Roehl, Harris & Sisk, P.A., Arthur D. Melendres, Stuart R. Butzier, Dolores R. Klingbeil, Albuquerque, for Amicus Curiae Albuquerque Public Schools.


BACA, Justice.

¶1 These consolidated appeals involve separate tort claims brought against the City of Albuquerque (City) pursuant to the New Mexico Tort Claims Act (TCA), NMSA 1978, § 41-4-1 to 4-27 (1976, as amended through 1996). Plaintiffs from both cases challenged the constitutionality of the damages limitation in Section 41-4-19(A) of the TCA, arguing that the cap violates their rights of equal protection under the New Mexico and United States Constitutions.

¶2 In considering the constitutionality of the cap, it first is necessary to determine the applicable analysis for this type of equal protection challenge. In a previous appeal of this case before this Court, we adopted an intermediate scrutiny equal protection analysis. See Trujillo v. City of Albuquerque, 110 N.M. 621, 623, 798 P.2d 571, 573 (1990) [hereinafter Trujillo I ]. After lengthy reexamination of the parties' arguments and consideration of law-of-the-case and stare decisis principles, this Court now reverses that decision.

Page 308

We hold that the damages cap in this case is subject to rational basis scrutiny, and rational basis will be the constitutional test applied to cap challenges of this nature from this point forward.

¶3 However, the parties in this case justifiably relied on the constitutional standard articulated in Trujillo I, a standard that perhaps was unduly and artificially narrowed in Trujillo v. City of Albuquerque, 119 N.M. 602, 603, 893 P.2d 1006, 1007 (1995) [hereinafter Trujillo II ]. Fairness requires that this Court adhere to the standard under which the current parties were instructed to litigate this dispute. Thus, with regard to the current parties only, this Court employs a certain form of intermediate scrutiny in its constitutional analysis. In doing so, we agree that the trial court correctly held the TCA cap to be unconstitutional. However, this Court limits this holding to the case before us, holding that in all subsequent cases of this nature, courts shall apply a rational basis standard in analyzing constitutional challenges to the TCA cap.


¶4 The TCA damages cap in New Mexico, as applied to the injuries occurring in these cases in 1984 and 1985, limited recovery to $300,000 per occurrence. See NMSA 1978, § 41-4-19(A)(2) (1983). This appeal arises from two consolidated personal injury actions filed against the City. In the first case, Lawrence Trujillo sued the City after his truck collided with a crane operated by a City employee. After a non-jury trial, the district court found that the City had failed to maintain the crane properly and that the employee had operated the crane negligently. The trial judge held inter alia that the TCA cap was unconstitutional, awarding $547,905.80 in damages to Trujillo.

¶5 The second case also arose from injuries sustained in a collision. The accident occurred when Plaintiff Lisa Rogers failed to see a stop sign, partially hidden by foliage, at the entrance of an intersection. Rogers entered the intersection without stopping, and a vehicle driven by an off-duty City police officer struck Rogers' car. Rogers suffered some injuries, and her minor daughter, a passenger in the car, was permanently paralyzed. After Rogers sued, a jury apportioned negligence in the case between the accident participants and those responsible for maintenance of the property and areas near the intersection. It awarded Rogers $400,000 and her daughter $8.3 million in damages from the City, both amounts exceeding the liability of the City under the TCA cap. At a subsequent post-trial hearing, the district judge reduced the award1 and concluded that the TCA cap was unconstitutional.

¶6 Upon review of Trujillo's case, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's decision and held that the TCA cap did not violate Trujillo's equal protection rights. Subsequently, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the decision. In Rogers' appeal, the Court of Appeals, without deciding the other issues, certified the question of the TCA cap's constitutionality to the Supreme Court.

¶7 This Court consolidated the appeals and entered its opinion on August 27, 1990. In the opinion, the Supreme Court first adopted an intermediate scrutiny equal protection analysis of the TCA cap's constitutionality. See Trujillo I, 110 N.M. at 623, 798 P.2d at 573. Under intermediate scrutiny, the City would be required to demonstrate that: (1) the cap serves an important government interest, and (2) a substantial relationship exists between the cap and the important government interest. See id. at 624 n. 2, 798 P.2d at 574 n. 2. Although the Trujillo I Court arrived at a conclusion on the applicable standard of constitutional scrutiny, the Justices concluded that the factual record was inadequate for a conclusion of the claims, and therefore, the Court remanded the case to the district court for further factual development.2 See id. at 632, 798

Page 309

P.2d at 582. In determining the importance of the government interest, the Court requested evidence on "the nature and magnitude" of the risk that the burden on public coffers would be increased by elimination of the TCA cap. Id. at 631, 798 P.2d at 581. Particularly, the Court asked for information concerning the relative cost of "the claims of [catastrophically injured] tort victims in the aggregate as compared to the aggregated claims of those with individual claims of $300,000 or less." Id. at 630, 798 P.2d at 580. Second, with regard to the "substantial relationship" prong of the intermediate scrutiny analysis, the Court wanted information on whether the increased costs would create a "real cost crisis" that would affect the provision of important government services. Id. at 628-29, 798 P.2d at 578-79.

¶8 During the subsequent remand hearing of approximately three weeks, the parties developed and presented evidence to the district court related to the operation and effect of the cap with respect to the City. The evidence included testimony from twelve witnesses and the admission of over 200 documentary exhibits. The district court denied attempts to include empirical evidence concerning New Mexico municipalities other than Albuquerque. After the hearing, the judge submitted his findings and conclusions, holding that the City had met its burden of demonstrating that the TCA cap was substantially related to an important City interest.

¶9 On September 6, 1994, the Supreme Court filed a divided plurality opinion in review of the evidentiary hearing. The opinion affirmed the holding that the TCA cap was constitutional under the limitations pursuant to which the case was tried. However, after a rehearing on the case, the Court withdrew its plurality opinion. In the subsequent Order, the Court noted that the trial court had erred in excluding evidence from other municipalities and ordered a remand for another evidentiary hearing. See Trujillo II, 119 N.M. at 603, 893 P.2d at 1007. The Court stated that the City's burden upon remand would be to establish a substantial relationship between the TCA cap and the protection of the public fisc as "an indivisible and statewide whole," both at the time the legislature enacted the cap and at the time the causes of action accrued. Id.

¶10 Upon remand, the Risk Management Division of the State of New Mexico and the New Mexico Municipal League intervened as defendants. Plaintiffs subsequently filed a motion asking the district court to set the scope of the proceedings for the second evidentiary hearing. The district court limited the evidentiary hearing to evidence within the 1976-77 and 1984-85 time frames, and the Supreme Court, upon challenge by the parties, affirmed these parameters.

¶11 The second evidentiary hearing occurred from April 28, 1997, through May 8, 1997, and again, the parties submitted substantial testimonial and documentary evidence. The district court rendered its findings of fact and conclusions of law soon thereafter, holding that the limit on the Plaintiffs' damages was unconstitutional. The court also awarded post-judgment interest, but the award of interest was withdrawn after rehearing on the issue. Plaintiffs then filed their notice of appeal on the case, and Defendants filed a notice of cross-appeal soon thereafter.


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