Fernandez v. Ford Motor Co.

Decision Date04 May 1994
Docket NumberNos. 13304,14101,s. 13304
Citation879 P.2d 101,118 N.M. 100,1994 NMCA 63
Parties, Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 14,049 Nathan B. FERNANDEZ, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Victor E. Fernandez, Deceased, Plaintiff-Appellant, and Tessie Fernandez, as Parent and Guardian of Jason Fernandez and Jonathan Fernandez, Involuntary Plaintiff-Appellant, v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY, CMI Corporation, Rust Equipment Company, Broce Construction Company, and Richardson Ford Sales, Inc., Defendants-Appellees, and Mountain States Mutual Casualty Company, Plaintiff-In-Intervention-Appellee.
CourtCourt of Appeals of New Mexico

ALARID, Judge.

This consolidated appeal began as a wrongful death case in which Plaintiff's father was run over and killed by a backing tractor-trailer road construction truck. Plaintiff appeals the district court's granting of summary judgment in favor of the record owner of the tractor-trailer. Plaintiff also appeals the granting of summary judgment in favor of the manufacturers and sellers of the tractor-trailer. Involuntary-Plaintiff appeals the district court's denial of a motion to dismiss a complaint-in-intervention filed by the workers' compensation provider for reimbursement of death benefits paid to Plaintiff and to the surviving widow and minor dependents of the deceased worker. We reverse and remand to the district court with instructions.


Victor Fernandez died in a work-related accident when a tractor-trailer combination truck backed over him on November 10, 1987. Mr. Fernandez worked as a road construction foreman for Mountain States Constructors at the time of his death. Broce Construction Company (Broce) was the registered owner of the tractor and the trailer (tractor-trailer) involved in the accident which killed Mr. Fernandez. Prior to the accident, Broce installed an audible reverse signal alarm on the tractor which it had purchased several years earlier. However, no such alarm was ever installed on the trailer and one issue raised in this appeal is whether the reverse signal warning alarm system utilized by Broce was adequate and functioning at the time Mr. Fernandez was killed.

Mr. Fernandez's son, Nathan (Plaintiff), received workers' compensation survivor benefits from Mountain States Mutual Casualty Company (Carrier) for the death of his father until reaching the age of eighteen. After reaching the age of majority, Plaintiff was then named as the personal representative for the estate of Mr. Fernandez. He thereafter filed a wrongful death action alleging negligence and strict products liability against Ford Motor Company (Ford) as manufacturer of the tractor; against Richardson Ford Sales, Incorporated (Richardson) as seller of the tractor; against CMI Corporation (CMI) as manufacturer of the trailer; and against Rust Equipment Company (Rust) as seller of the trailer which backed over Mr. Fernandez. Plaintiff also named Broce as a defendant in the wrongful death case as the record owner of the tractor-trailer. We also note on appeal Carrier advises this Court that it paid, and continues to pay, survivor benefits to Tessie Fernandez, Mr. Fernandez's widow (Involuntary Plaintiff), and his two minor dependents.

Approximately one month following the initiation of the wrongful death lawsuit, Involuntary Plaintiff filed an affidavit in the district court wherein she elected, on behalf of herself and her two minor children, to receive workers' compensation benefits from Carrier as their sole remedy for the death of Mr. Fernandez. Thereafter, Broce filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings claiming that, at the time of the accident, it was only the technical owner of the tractor-trailer which killed Mr. Fernandez; that it was no longer in business at the time of the accident; and that, as bailor of the tractor and the trailer rig, it was not responsible or liable for Mr. Fernandez's death. After memoranda in support of the respective positions were filed, the district court granted Broce's motion for judgment on the pleadings (decided as a motion for summary judgment). Plaintiff appeals that decision to this Court.

Prior to the district court's ruling on the motion for judgment on the pleadings, Broce, CMI, Rust, and Richardson (Defendants) filed a joint motion seeking dismissal of the complaint. Generally, the assertions raised in the motion were whether Involuntary Plaintiff and her two dependent children could lawfully elect not to receive their respective portions of any proceeds won in Plaintiff's wrongful death suit. Defendants also questioned whether Plaintiff was the proper personal representative to initiate the wrongful death action. Specifically, Defendants raised the issue of whether Plaintiff would be allowed during a wrongful death trial to present evidence as to the damages of the Involuntary Plaintiff and two children, who as noted above elected not to receive any award obtained in the wrongful death cause of action. Defendants argued that any award won by Plaintiff should be reduced by the percentage of the award that would have gone to the Involuntary Plaintiff and children. And finally, Defendants sought to have the district court name Involuntary Plaintiff and children as parties in Plaintiff's wrongful death suit and to appoint guardians ad litem for the two children with regard to election of the remedies.

Procedurally, the district court denied Defendants' joint pleading. However, in order to protect Carrier's right to reimbursement, the district court did order Carrier to be joined in Plaintiff's wrongful death suit. Apparently, as an additional measure to ensure Carrier's reimbursement, the district court also granted Carrier leave to file a complaint-in-intervention to secure reimbursement. Thereafter, Carrier filed its complaint-in-intervention asserting that Involuntary Plaintiff and children's claims in the wrongful death suit were assigned to it under NMSA 1978, Section 52-5-17 (Cum.Supp.1990). Carrier also named as Defendants-in-Intervention Plaintiff, Ford, Richardson, CMI and Rust. Carrier seeks reimbursement from these parties in the amount of all past, and in the amount of all future, workers' compensation benefits. The district court deferred ruling on the "questions of presentation of evidence, jury instructions, reductions in award or distributions of proceeds."

After Carrier filed the complaint-in-intervention, Involuntary Plaintiff filed a motion to dismiss that pleading. The motion to dismiss was denied and Involuntary Plaintiff appeals that ruling to this Court. Additionally, at the same time that the district court denied Involuntary Plaintiff's motion to dismiss, it granted summary judgments in favor of Ford, Richardson, CMI, and Rust in response to independent and separate motions for summary judgment which had been filed by these Defendants during the course of the litigation. Plaintiff appeals the decision concerning the remaining summary judgments in favor of Defendants. The separate appeals described above were consolidated and it is in this posture that we consider the present case before us. However, in addition to the consolidated appeals and the issues upon which the district court deferred ruling, two additional details need mentioning.

First, Carrier is the general liability insurance provider for two of the individually named Defendants in Plaintiff's wrongful death cause of action. Plaintiff and Involuntary Plaintiff argue that Carrier is in a conflict of interest situation requiring this Court to reverse the district court order allowing Carrier's complaint-in-intervention. Second, concerning the independent corporate structure of Broce, Broce argues that, since all shares of its stock are owned by Steven Benoit and his wife, and since Mr. Benoit and his wife donated or "loaned" all of the stock of Broce, which included the road construction equipment, to Mountain States Constructors, Broce is a wholly owned subsidiary of Mountain States Constructors. Thus, Broce argues that Plaintiff cannot sue it for wrongful death because Mountain States Constructors has and continues to pay survivor benefits under the Workers' Compensation Act for the death of Mr. Fernandez.


We first consider whether the district court erred in granting summary judgment to Broce as record owner of the tractor-trailer at the time of the accident. Summary judgment is a drastic measure that should be used with great caution. Knapp v. Fraternal Order of Eagles, 106 N.M. 11, 12, 738 P.2d 129, 130 (Ct.App.1987). It is proper only when the case presents no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Paca v. K-Mart Corp., 108 N.M. 479, 480, 775 P.2d 245, 246 (1989). "In deciding whether summary judgment is proper, a court must look to the whole record and view the matters presented in the light most favorable to support the right to trial on the merits." Cunningham v. Gross, 102 N.M. 723, 725, 699 P.2d 1075, 1077 (1985). However, once the movant for summary...

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