Federal Court of Appeals Issues Opinion Dealing With Sovereign Immunity In New Mexico

Accident and injury can happen anywhere in New Mexico, but if a slip and fall or work injury occurs on government property or from the error of a government employee, the path to recovering damages presents different obstacles. Hiring knowledgeable New Mexico personal injury attorneys is the best way to navigate these legal obstacles. Sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine that emerged to protect government entities from liability so that government authorities would not be constantly bombarded by lawsuits and can readily move forward with civic matters. In New Mexico, sovereign immunity is codified in the Tort Claims Act. The Act, created in 1975, formally legislated sovereign immunity but allows suit against the government in certain, specifically defined instances.

For a suit to move forward against a New Mexico government entity, the action must be 1) based in one of the defined exceptions to the statutory immunity in the Tort Claims Act, and 2) committed by a public employee acting within the scope of his or her governmental duty. Case precedent and statute defines the duty and responsibility of the employee. In a recently published decision, Tellez v. City of Belen, the Federal Court of Appeals assessed whether or not the district court erred in its exclusion of facts included in affidavits for the deceased’s estate. The appellate question rested on the defendant claiming sovereign immunity, which shifts the burden to the plaintiff to show the at-fault party violated a clearly established constitutional right.

The initial facts of the case involved an officer called to the scene of a fight between brothers. One brother stabbed the other, and police were called. The brother who committed the stabbing allegedly had a rifle which he refused to lower, and the officer shot and killed him. The father filed suit under 42 U.S.C. section 1983 on behalf of his estate, claiming the officer used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The officer asserted qualified immunity, and the district court granted the summary judgment motion to dismiss the claim. The court determined the officer did not violate the constitutional rights of the deceased, and the Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court’s assessment. To combat the motion for summary judgment, the deceased’s estate provided affidavits of the deceased’s brother and a neighbor, who both claimed the deceased never had a weapon. The lower court rejected these statements, measuring them against other eyewitness statements and video of the deceased with a weapon. The Court of Appeals opinion supported the district court’s action of excluding the statements, pointing to the Supreme Court decision in Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007), that established a court should not adopt a version of facts that is blatantly contradicted by the record. The Court of Appeals also determined that, given the totality of the circumstances, the officer’s use of force was not excessive.

While the federal court’s decision in Tellez is instructive of the challenges that can occur in a suit against a government entity or agent, it does not cover the many opportunities for an injured person to pursue damages through the established exceptions to sovereign immunity in the Tort Claims Act. If you are struck by someone in a government agency operating any motor vehicle, aircraft, or watercraft, or have an accident in a government building, public park, or road construction, you likely qualify to file suit under an exception in the Tort Claims Act. The New Mexico personal injury attorneys at Parnall Law Firm have the litigation experience you need at your side as a government entity or agent attempts to hide behind sovereign immunity. Our attorneys will aggressively fight for you and will help you seek the damages you deserve. For a free, confidential consultation, call today at 505-268-6500.