Morga v. Fedex Ground Package Sys., Inc., S-1-SC-36918

Docket NºS-1-SC-36918
Citation512 P.3d 774
Case DateMay 19, 2022
CourtSupreme Court of New Mexico

512 P.3d 774

Alfredo MORGA, Individually and on behalf of the Estate of Ylairam Morga, Deceased, and as Next Friend of Yahir Morga, Minor Child; and Rene Venegas Lopez, Individually and as the Administrator of the Estate of Marialy Ruby Venegas Morga, Deceased, and Georgina Leticia Venegas, Individually, Plaintiffs-Respondents,
v.
FEDEX GROUND PACKAGE SYSTEM, INC., Ruben's Trucking, LLC a/k/a Ruben Reyes a/k/a Shooter's Express Trucking, Inc., the Estate of Elizabeth Sena Quintana, and M&K'S Trucking, Inc., Defendants-Petitioners.

No. S-1-SC-36918

Supreme Court of New Mexico.

Filing Date: May 19, 2022


Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb, P.A., Edward R. Ricco, Jeffrey M. Croasdell, Jocelyn C. Drennan, Brenda M. Saiz, Albuquerque, NM, Goodwin Procter LLP, William M. Jay, Washington, DC, for Petitioners

Cervantes Law Firm, P.C., K. Joseph Cervantes, Las Cruces, NM, Scherr & Legate, PLLC, James Franklin Scherr, Sam Jackson Legate, El Paso, TX, L. Helen Bennett, P.C., Linda Helen Bennett, Albuquerque, NM, Daniel Anchondo, El Paso, TX, for Respondents

Jarmie & Rogers, P.C., Mark Standridge, Las Cruces, NM, for Amicus Curiae New Mexico Defense Lawyers Association

Butt, Thornton & Baehr, P.C., Monica R. Garcia, Rheba Rutkowski, Albuquerque, NM, for Amicus Curiae Trucking Industry Defense Association

VARGAS, Justice.

{1} This case highlights the respective roles that the district court judge and the jury each serve in the inherently difficult task of awarding monetary damages for nonmonetary injuries. The jury awarded four Plaintiffs a total of more than $165 million in damages to compensate them for a tragic accident that claimed half of a young family in a single instant and left surviving family members physically and emotionally injured. Defendants appealed the verdict as excessive, contending it was not supported by substantial evidence and was tainted by passion or prejudice. The Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict. Morga v. FedEx Ground Package Sys., Inc. , 2018-NMCA-039, ¶ 1, 420 P.3d 586. We granted certiorari to consider whether the Court of Appeals erred by (1) applying an abuse of discretion standard to review the district court's denial of Defendants’ motion for a new trial because the ruling was made by a successor judge who did not oversee the trial, and (2) affirming the district court's denial of Defendants’ motion for a new trial on grounds that the verdict was excessive. We conclude that the Court of Appeals did not err in either respect. First, because we review claims of excessive verdicts de novo, we need not adopt a new standard of review for decisions of successor judges assigned under the circumstances of this case, as requested by Defendants, and we decline to do so. Next, we conclude under our current law that substantial evidence supported the verdict and the record does not reflect that the verdict was tainted by passion or prejudice. We therefore affirm the Court of Appeals.

I. BACKGROUND

{2} The facts of this case are nothing short of tragic. In the predawn hours of June 22, 2011, a semi-truck hauling double trailers crashed at high-speed into the back of a small pickup truck driven by Marialy Morga. The semi-truck was operated by FedEx Ground Package System, Inc. (FedEx) and driven by Elizabeth Quintana, who was employed by independent contractors of FedEx (collectively, Defendants).

{3} At the time of the accident, Marialy had her flashers on and was either stopped or moving very slowly traveling west in the right-hand lane. A witness to the accident testified that he watched as the FedEx semi-truck came upon Marialy's pickup truck without slowing down or taking any evasive action. He explained that

[i]t seemed that the driver of the FedEx truck never saw the [pickup] truck. It just overtook it. On impact ... the double trailers in the back, the back trailer bucked, moved up, and they buckled and folded forward. The cab of the FedEx truck collapsed in on itself on top of the small truck,

demolishing the pickup truck and creating a black cloud that enveloped the entire scene.

512 P.3d 780

The FedEx semi-truck was traveling at sixty-five-miles per hour when it hit the pickup truck. The record indicates Elizabeth Quintana was distracted when she hit the pickup truck, did not attempt to brake prior to the collision, and simply ran right over the pickup truck, causing an "extremely severe impact" that "absolutely destroyed" it.

{4} The impact claimed the lives of Elizabeth Quintana, twenty-two-year-old Marialy, and her four-year-old daughter Ylairam. Marialy's toddler son Yahir survived but was critically injured.

A. District Court Proceedings

{5} Alfredo Morga, individually, as personal representative of Ylairam, and as next friend of Yahir, filed suit against Defendants seeking damages including those for Ylairam's wrongful death, Yahir's physical injuries, and Mr. Morga's own emotional and physical injuries and loss of consortium of his wife and daughter. Marialy's father, Rene Venegas Lopez, brought suit for Marialy's wrongful death as personal representative of her estate.1 Plaintiffs sought compensatory damages, including noneconomic damages, and punitive damages for their injuries and Marialy's and Ylairam's wrongful deaths.

{6} At the close of the evidence, the jury was instructed to consider economic damages in the form of funeral and burial costs, lost value of household services and earning capacity considering their respective "health, habits, and life expectanc[ies]" for the loss of Ylarim and Marialy, as well as noneconomic damages for the value of their lives "apart from ... earning capacity" and the loss of parental guidance and counseling from Marialy to her son, Yahir. With respect to damages to Alfredo and Yahir, the jury was instructed to consider economic damages for "medical care, treatment and services received and the present cash value of the reasonable expenses of medical care, treatment and services reasonably certain to be received in the future[, t]he nature, extent and duration of the injury," and any exacerbation of a prior injury. In awarding noneconomic damages, the jury was also instructed to consider the past and future pain and suffering,2 loss of enjoyment of life, and emotional distress suffered as a result of the accident.

{7} The district court directed the jury that in determining the amount awarded, there was no fixed method of valuing noneconomic damages including pain and suffering or loss of enjoyment of life, and that jurors were to use "the enlightened conscience of impartial jurors acting under the sanctity of [their] oath to compensate the beneficiaries with fairness to all parties to this action." The jury was further cautioned in multiple instructions that the verdict must be based on the evidence presented and that "sympathy or prejudice for or against a party should not affect [the] verdict and [was] not a proper basis for determining damages."

{8} The jury entered its verdict, awarding damages totaling $61,000,000 for the wrongful death of Ylairam Morga, $32,000,000 for the wrongful death of Marialy Morga, $32,000,000 for the personal injury to Yahir Morga, $40,125,000 for the personal injury to Alfredo Morga, $208,000 for the damages suffered by Rene Venegas, and $200,000 for the damages suffered by Georgina Venegas.3

{9} Following the entry of the verdict, the district court judge recused herself after participating in an ex-parte communication with Plaintiffs’ counsel. A successor judge was appointed pursuant to Rule 1-063 NMRA.

{10} Defendants timely filed a motion for a new trial or remittitur4 on the ground

512 P.3d 781

that the verdict was excessive, arguing that it was not supported by substantial evidence and was tainted by passion or prejudice. The successor judge heard argument on this motion and ultimately denied the motion, finding that substantial evidence supported the verdict and that the verdict was not tainted by passion or prejudice. Defendants appealed to the Court of Appeals.

B. The Decision of the Court of Appeals

{11} Applying an abuse of discretion standard, the Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict and the successor judge's denial of a new trial or remittitur, concluding that the verdict was supported by substantial evidence and was not tainted by passion or prejudice. Morga , 2018-NMCA-039, ¶¶ 1, 25, 37, 52, 420 P.3d 586. The Court of Appeals rejected Defendants’ invitation to apply a de novo standard of review to the successor judge's decision and emphasized the value New Mexico's judiciary places on juries and district courts to determine the value of human life. See id. ¶¶ 10, 25. While the Court of Appeals applied an abuse of discretion standard of review to the successor judge's decision to deny Defendants’ motion for a new trial or remittitur, it acknowledged that "even when we review for an abuse of discretion, our review of the application of the law to the facts is conducted de novo." Id. ¶ 8.

{12} The Court of Appeals set forth all of the compensatory damage evidence individually for each Plaintiff and held that substantial evidence supported the verdict, id. ¶¶ 14-23, concluding that Defendants did not "identif[y] any of Plaintiffs’ evidence deemed...

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