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Roybal-Mack v. New Mexico Department of Public Safety

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 11, 2017

ANTONIA ROYBAL-MACK, as Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Estate of KORI LYNN WOODS, Plaintiff,
v.
NEW MEXICO DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY, OFFICER MARK QUINTANA and OFFICER DIEGO MENDOZA, individually and in their official capacities, and JOHN and JANE DOES #1-10, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS COUNTS II, III, IV AND V

          WILLIAM P. JOHNSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court upon a Motion to Dismiss Counts II, III, IV and V filed on May 19, 2017 by Defendants New Mexico Department of Public Safety, Officer Mark Quintana and Officer Diego Mendoza (“Defendants”) (Doc. 6). Having reviewed the relevant pleadings and the applicable law, the Court finds that Defendants' motion is well-taken and, therefore, is granted.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff's claims arise from the Defendant Officer's high-speed pursuit of a vehicle operated by Kyle Mawhorter (“Mawhorter”), in which Kori Lynn Woods was a passenger and which resulted in a single-vehicle collision killing Ms. Woods.

         The facts in the Complaint are summed up in the Joint Status Report (Doc. 13). In November 2016 near Clovis, New Mexico, State Police Officer Quintana initiated a traffic stop for speeding on a vehicle operated by Mawhorter in which Ms. Woods was riding as a passenger. Officer Quintana activated his patrol unit's emergency equipment directing Mawhorter to stop the vehicle on the shoulder of the highway. Mawhorter failed to stop and Officer Quintana pursued Mawhorter (at speeds, according to Defendants, close to 100 m.p.h.) along U.S. 70 traveling northbound. Officer Mendoza of the New Mexico State Police was also patrolling that stretch of the highway and was dispatched to assist Officer Quintana. Both police cruisers were using their overhead emergency lights and sirens, and recorded the chase on their dash-cam videos. Defendants' version of events is that at one point Mawhorter deliberately crossed into the southbound lanes of U.S. 70 and began traveling northbound at speeds of 90-100 mph against oncoming traffic, causing the southbound vehicles to swerve in order to avoid being hit. The officers therefore decided to continue their pursuit of the vehicle for public safety reasons.

         About five minutes into the pursuit, Officer Mendoza attempted a Pursuit Intervention Technique (“PIT”) maneuver on Mawhorter's vehicle. The first PIT maneuver was unsuccessful, but the second one brought Mawhorter's vehicle to a stop. However, after stopping, Mawhorter reversed his car and began traveling northbound on U.S. 70 again. According to Plaintiff's version, Officer Mendoza advised dispatch at this time that there was a female passenger (Ms. Woods) in Mawhorter's vehicle. Officer Quintana attempted a third unsuccessful PIT maneuver when Mawhorter began traveling west on Brady Avenue in Clovis, N.M. The pursuit continued 12 miles on U.S. 70 northbound until Mawhorter lost control of his vehicle crashing into a metal fence at the intersection of W. Brady Ave. and S. Hull St. in Clovis. Mawhorter fled the vehicle on foot but was eventually found in a field and ultimately pled guilty to various felony charges stemming from the accident. Kori Lynn Woods was pronounced dead at the scene.[1]

         On March 31, 2017, Plaintiff as the personal representative of Ms. Woods' estate, filed a five-count complaint in the Second Judicial District Court in Bernalillo County, asserting the following civil rights and state law tort claims:

Count I - Civil rights violations under §1983 (Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments);
Count II - Violations of the New Mexico Tort Claims Act, NMSA 1978 41-4-12 and under the New Mexico Law Enforcement Safe Pursuit Act, NMSA 1978, §29-20-1;
Count III - Negligent hiring, Training, Supervision and Retention;
Count IV - Respondeat Superior; and
Count V - Breach of duty under the New Mexico Wrongful Death Act, NMSA 1978, §41-2-1 et seq.

         Defendants removed the case to federal court on May 15, 2017 and in this motion seek dismissal of Counts II, III, IV and V, all of them state claims.[2]

         DISCUSSION

         Defendants contend that Counts II, III, IV and V of the Complaint are redundant and attempt in various ways to state a claim for negligence resulting in the wrongful death of the decedent pursuant to NMSA 41-4-12 of the New Mexico Tort Claims Act (“Tort Claims Act”). They argue that Plaintiff has not alleged an essential element of such a claim, namely the commission of one of the statutorily-enumerated, intentional torts in that provision, and therefore Plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Fed.R.Civ.P.12(b)(6).

         To survive a motion to dismiss, Stein's complaint must have sufficient factual matter that if true, states a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677 (2009) (“Iqbal”). As such, a plaintiff's “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) (“Twombly”). All well-pleaded factual allegations are “viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Brokers' Choice of Am., Inc. v. NBC Universal, Inc., 757 F.3d 1125, 1136 (10th Cir. 2014). In ruling on a motion to dismiss, “a court should disregard all conclusory statements of law and consider whether the remaining specific factual allegations, if assumed to be true, plausibly suggest the defendant is liable.” Kan. Penn Gaming, LLC v. Collins, 656 F.3d 1210, 1214 (10th Cir. 2011). Mere “labels and conclusions” or “formulaic recitation[s] of the elements of a cause of action” will not suffice. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         I. Tort Claims Act (Count II)

         The Tort Claims Act preserves sovereign immunity against tort claims for state governmental entities and public employees acting in the scope of their duties, except as specifically waived. Fernandez v. Mora-San Miguel Elec. Co-op., Inc., 462 F.3d 1244, 1250 (10th Cir. 2006); College Savings Bank v. Fl. Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Bd., U.S. 527, 666, 675 (1999) (a state's sovereign immunity precludes suits against a state or its employees except as specified where immunity has been waived). The issue of governmental immunity is jurisdictional, Spray v. City of Albuquerque,94 N.M. 199, 608 P.2d 511 ...


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