Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Morga v. Fedex Ground Package System, Inc.

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

February 6, 2018

ALFREDO MORGA, Individually and on behalf of the Estate of YLAIRAM MORGA, Deceased; and as Next Friend of YAHIR MORGA, Minor Child,
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-Appellants. and RENE VENEGAS LOPEZ, Individually and as the Administrator of the Estate of MARIALY RUBY VENEGAS MORGA Deceased; and GEORGINA LETICIA VENEGAS, Individually, Plaintiffs- Appellees,

         APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF SANTA FE COUNTY Francis J. Mathew, District Judge.

          L. Helen Bennett, P.C. L. Helen Bennett Albuquerque, NM for Appellee the Estate of Ylairam Morga.

          Scherr & Legate, PLLC James F. Scherr El Paso, TX for Appellee Alfredo Morga.

          Cervantes Law Firm, P.C. K, Joseph Cervantes Las Cruces, NM for Appellee Yahir Morga.

          Daniel Anchondo El Paso, TX for Appellee the Estate of Marialy Ruby Venegas Morga.

          Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb, P.A. Edward R. Ricco Jocelyn Drennan Jeff Croasdell Brenda M. Saiz Albuquerque, NM for Appellants.


          TIMOTHY L. GARCIA, Judge Pro Tem.

         {¶1} This appeal is before us following a jury verdict for more than $165 million to Plaintiffs for wrongful death, personal injury, and loss of consortium claims that arose from a catastrophic automobile accident between a small pickup truck and a FedEx transport tractor-trailer. Defendants assert that the district court erred in denying their motion for a new trial or a remittitur of the damages awarded by the jury. Specifically, Defendants argue that (1) the verdict was not supported by substantial evidence; and (2) the jury's verdict was tainted by passion, prejudice, partiality, sympathy, undue influence, or a mistaken measure of damages. In addition, Defendants argue that the district court erred in awarding prejudgment interest. This case presents an opportunity to address important issues faced by the judicial system-how do appellate courts measure the outer limits of a jury's discretion to award compensatory damages and whether we should utilize mathematic ratios as an acceptable basis to reduce damage awards in large verdict cases. We decline to utilize mathematic ratios as the basis for establishing error by the district court. We affirm the district court's denial of Defendants' two post-trial motions, and accordingly, we affirm the jury's verdict. We also affirm the award of prejudgment interest.


         {¶2} On June 22, 2011, at approximately 1:30 a.m., on the interstate between Las Cruces and Deming, New Mexico, a combination tractor-trailer vehicle (the FedEx truck) struck a small pickup truck driven by Marialy Ruby Venegas Morga (Ms. Morga), Accompanying Ms. Morga was her four-year-old daughter, Ylairam Morga (Ylairam), and nineteen-month-old son, Yahir Morga (Yahir). The FedEx truck was operated by FedEx Ground Package System, Inc. (FedEx) through independent FedEx contractors, and the actual driver for the FedEx contractors was Elizabeth Quintana (Quintana) (FedEx, the FedEx contractors, and Quintana are collectively referred to as Defendants). Ms. Morga was either stopped or barely moving on the right-hand side of her traffic lane when the FedEx truck struck her vehicle from behind at sixty-five miles per hour without slowing. The impact and its resulting injuries were severe, with multiple fatalities occurring, Ms. Morga and Ylairam died, and Yahir was seriously injured. Quintana also died as a result of the accident.

         {¶3} Alfredo Morga, Ms. Morga's spouse, brought suit against Defendants, individually and as personal representative for his daughter, Ylairam, and as next friend for his son, Yahir. Mr. Morga also asserted claims against Defendants for personal injury and wrongful death. Ms. Morga's father, Rene Venegas Lopez, as her personal representative, brought suit against Defendants for wrongful death (Mr. Morga individually and in his representative capacity for both of his children, as well as Mr. Lopez in his capacity as personal representative for Ms. Morga are referred to in this opinion as Plaintiffs). Mr. Lopez and his wife, Georgina Leticia Venegas, also intervened in the lawsuit (Intervenors) and asserted personal claims for loss of consortium resulting from the death of their daughter Ms. Morga. Prior to trial, FedEx stipulated that it would "pay for any damages attributed to [FedEx] and the other named [D]efendants."

         {¶4} At trial, Plaintiffs presented evidence of damages related to the wrongful death, personal injury claims by Plaintiffs and also the loss of consortium claims by Mr. Morga and Intervenors, Plaintiffs also asked the jury to award punitive damages against Defendants. The jury found all Defendants negligent and liable for Plaintiffs' claims. The jury apportioned fault for the accident as follows: FedEx (65 percent), the FedEx contractors and Quintana (10 percent each for a total of 30 percent), and Ms. Morga (5 percent). The jury awarded compensatory damages as follows:

For the wrongful death of Ylairam


For the wrongful death of Ms. Morga


For personal injury and the loss of consortium for his mother, to Yahir


For emotional distress, resulting from physical and psychological injury, and the loss of consortium for his spouse and child, to Mr. Morga


For the loss of consortium of his daughter, to Mr. Lopez


For the loss of consortium for her daughter, to Ms. Venegas


         No punitive damages were awarded by the jury.

         {¶5} After the verdict was entered on January 24, 2015, the district court judge presiding over the case was involved in an ex parte conversation with Plaintiffs counsel regarding potential counsel on appeal Recognizing that the ex parte conversation could be perceived as improper, the district court judge recused herself. The case was reassigned to Judge Mathew to preside over all the post-trial proceedings.

         {¶6} Defendants moved for a new trial or remittitur of the damages award and argued that the verdict was excessive. The district court denied both motions. The court concluded that there was substantial evidence to support the verdict, that it was not the result of passion, prejudice, a mistaken measure of damages, or other improper factors, and that it would be inappropriate to substitute its judgment for that of the jury. Plaintiffs then proposed a form of judgment that included an award of prejudgment interest. The district court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion and subsequently ruled that, under NMSA 1978, Section 56-8-4(B) (2004), prejudgment interest was wan-anted at an annual rate of 5 percent. Defendants filed a timely appeal While the appeal was pending before this Court, Intervenors settled their loss of consortium claims. As a result, we do not address any appellate arguments regarding Intervenors' damage awards and loss of consortium claims.


         {¶7} On appeal, Defendants do not assert any issues related to the jury's determination of liability, but only contested the jury's award of compensatory damages and the district court's award of prejudgment interest.

         I. Denial of Defendants' Motions for New Trial or Remittitur

         A. Standard of Review

         {¶8} We review the district court's denial of Defendants' motions for a new trial or remittitur for an abuse of discretion. See State v. Mann, 2002-NMSC-001, ¶ 17, 131 N.M. 459, 39 P.3d 124 ("[The appellate courts] will not overturn a trial court's denial of a motion for a new trial unless the trial court abused its discretion,"); Hanberry v. Fitzgerald, 1963-NMSC-100, ¶ 2, 72 N.M. 383,384 P.2d 256 (applying an abuse of discretion standard for the review of an appellant's "claim that the verdict [was] excessive, requiring a remittitur or a new trial"); Sandoval v. Baker Hughes Oilfield Operations, Inc. (Jose Sandoval), 2009-NMCA-095, ¶ 13, 146 N.M, 853, 215 P.3d 791 ("The applicable standard in reviewing the denial of a motion for a new trial or remittitur is [an] abuse of discretion), "[The] trial court abuses its discretion when its decision is contrary to logic and reason." N.M. Right to Choose/NARAL v. Johnson, 1999-NMSC-028, ¶ 6, 127 N.M. 654, 986 P.2d 450 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see Talbott v. Roswell Hosp. Corp., 2008-NMCA-114, ¶¶ 29-30,144 N.M. 753, 192 P.3d 267 (recognizing that a trial court does not abuse its discretion in denying a motion for a new trial unless its decision was "arbitrary, capricious, or beyond reason" (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)). However, 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 ¶ 9.

         {¶9} Our appellate courts defer to the jury in awarding damages and also to the trial court in its assessment of a motion for new trial or a motion to remit the amount of damages awarded by the jury. See Ennis v. Kmart Corp., 2001 -NMCA-068, ¶ 27, 131 N.M. 32, 33 P.3d 32 ("When a trial court denies a motion for a remittitur, we defer to the trial court's judgment. When the jury makes a determination and the trial court approves, the amount awarded in dollars stands in the strongest position known in the law." (internal quotation marks and citations omitted)); see also Coates v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 1999-NMSC-013, ¶ 49, 127 N.M. 47, 976 P.2d 999 (recognizing the appellate court's reliance on the trial court because of its unique position "to observe the witnesses and their demeanor as well as the jurors' attitude during the trial" whereas we review the record cold); Salopek v. Friedman, 2013-NMCA-087, ¶ 30, 308 P.3d 139 ("In determining whether a jury verdict is excessive, we do not reweigh the evidence but determine whether the verdict is excessive as a matter of law. The jury's verdict is presumed to be correct," (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)).

         {¶10} Defendants argue that such deference to the district court should not be afforded in this particular case because Judge Mathew did not have the opportunity to observe the proceedings first hand, Defendants therefore contend that a de novo standard of review should apply. Defendants cite no authority to support their contention that a judge duly appointed to proceed with an ongoing case, pursuant to Rule 1-063 NMRA,[1] is not entitled to the same discretion given to other trial judges presiding over a case. We decline to deviate from this established precedent-recognizing an abuse of discretion standard of review-for four reasons. First, this Court will not consider propositions that are unsupported by citation to authority. See ITT Educ. Servs., Inc. v. N.M. Taxation & Revenue Dep't, 1998-NMCA-078, ¶ 10,125 N.M. 244,959 P.2d 969. Second, although this standard of review argument was presented as one based on inherent logic, this Court is bound by Supreme Court precedent, including the appropriate standard of review to be applied. See State ex rel Martinez v. City of Las Vegas, 2004-NMSC-009, ¶¶ 20-22, 135 N.M. 375, 89 P.3d 47 (stating that although the Court of Appeals is bound by Supreme Court precedent, we may explain "any reservations [this Court] might harbor over its application of [Supreme Court] precedent so that we will be in a more informed position to decide whether to reassess prior case law")- We can only note the potential logic of Defendants' argument regarding applying a different standard of review in the present case, but any change to the standard of review must be implemented by our Supreme Court. Third, although Judge Mathew was not in the "unique position to observe the witnesses and their demeanor as well as the jurors' attitude during the trial[,]" Coates, 1999-NMSC-013, ¶ 49, he does have "experience with juries in the community," which this Court stated is "an indispensable safeguard built into our American civil jury system," Sandoval v. Chrysler Corp, (James Sandoval), 1998-NMCA-085,¶14,125 N.M.292,960 P.2d 834. Fourth, Defendants made no objection below regarding Judge Mathew's capacity or ability to fully preside over the hearing for remittitur or a new trial

         {¶11} In reviewing the actual evidence presented at trial, "we review the sufficiency of the evidence to support the verdict by examining whether the verdict is supported by such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind would find adequate to support a conclusion." Jose Sandoval, 2009-NMCA-095, ¶ 12 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted), "We review all evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict and resolve all conflicts in the light most favorable to the prevailing party." Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         B. Analysis of the Evidence to Support the Jury's Award

         {¶12} The purpose of compensatory damages is to make the injured party whole by compensating it for losses." Cent Sec. & Alarm Co. v. Mehler, 1996-NMCA-060, ¶ 11,121 N.M. 840, 918 P.2d 1340. "A jury's damages award will be upheld unless it appears that the amount awarded is so grossly out of proportion to the injury received as to shock the conscience," Salopek, 2013-NMCA-087,¶ 31 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). This Court is required to consider two factors in making the determination of whether a jury award is excessive. First, we consider ''whether the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, substantially supports the award." Waahocki v. Bernalillo Cnty. Sheriffs Dep't, 2010-NMCA-021, ¶ 48, 147 N.M, 720, 228 P.3d 504 (alterations, internal quotation marks, and citation omitted), affd, 2011-NMSC-039, 150 N.M. 650, 265 P.3d 701. If any portion of the award is supported by substantial evidence, we must next consider "whether there is an indication of passion, prejudice, partiality, sympathy, undue influence or a mistaken measure of damages on the part of the fact[-]finder." Id, If the award does not satisfy either of these tests, then all or some portion of the award is deemed excessive. See Jose Sandoval, 2009-NMCA-095, ¶ 16. In the present case, Defendants argue that the evidence did not support the award of damages and that passion, prejudice, or sympathy affected the jury's determination of the amount of damages it awarded. However, even if the jury's award is higher than the court would have given, this is not sufficient to disturb a verdict. Id ¶ 17; An award of damages will be disturbed only in extreme circumstances. See Salopek, 2013-NMCA-087, ¶ 30. "The proper approach is to examine the plaintiffs evidence related to damages and determine whether that evidence could justify the amount of the verdict, or determine whether the verdict amount was grossly out of proportion to the evidence of the plaintiffs [injury]." Id. ¶ 31 (alterations, internal quotation marks, and citation omitted).

         {¶13} Although Defendants concede that the evidence at trial supported an award for compensatory damages, they argue that the amounts awarded to Plaintiffs were excessive for two reasons.[2] First, Defendants argue that the awards for wrongful death, bodily injury, and loss of consortium "far exceed any previous awards in this state" and the evidence was insufficient to support such an excessive award. Second, Defendants argue that because the awards for the economic injury make up such a small portion of the total award (between 1 and 3 percent), the damage awards are grossly disproportionate to the injury" and constitute legal error requiring a new trial on the issue of damages. We recognize that Defendants' arguments are both primarily directed at whether the amount of the jury's award for non-economic damages "is so grossly out of proportion to the injury received as to shock the conscience" of this Court. Id (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         1. Substantial Evidence Was Presented to Support the Award of Economic and ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.