ALBUQUERQUE (Legal Newsline) -
Rising costs of workers' compensation insurance and the drain on state resources created by
the 2010 Whistleblower Protection Act are among reasons why New Mexico's legal environment is ranked among the worst states in the nation, according to recent research.
A Harris Poll survey, which examined the overall handling of tort and contract
litigation, enforcement of meaningful venue requirements, rules
for discovery and the impartiality and competence of judges, showed that the state has dropped from 37th
in a nationwide ranking of states' liability systems.
New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry (NMACI) invited business leaders to voice concerns about the state's poor showing in the survey at a forum last week.
Quinn Lopez, vice president and general counsel for New Mexico Mutual, said the state's judiciary is often biased in favor of
plaintiffs and has shown an unwillingness to sets limits on assigned damages. The
consequences of this trend, he said, are driving up costs of workers' compensation insurance rates across the state.
executive director of New Mexico Association of Counties, added that the Whistleblower Protection Act of 2010, which was written to protect employees who report improper behavior from
reprisal, is being exploited with frivolous litigation.
The flaw in the whistleblower legislation is that several concepts contained in
it, including what qualifies as improper behavior and who the
employee is required to report to, are not clearly defined, he said. This
allows disgruntled employees who are terminated, even those let go with legitimate
cause, to bring civil suits against their employers.
Kopelman said this trend has placed a heavy burden on New Mexico county government
agencies in particular, a strain which is then passed on to
tax payers and is a drain on resources.
Defense attorney Deborah Manns of Albuquerque, who represents health care providers in personal injury and wrongful death litigation, indicated that current venue law in New Mexico is very generous - lawyers can have a case tried in the jurisdiction
where an accident occurred, the jurisdiction where the victim lives
and in the case of a wrongful death suit the home of the
representative bringing the complaint on the victim's behalf.
Thursday's forum was led by a representative of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, Harold Kim, who suggested that the state could
rectify problems with its tort liability system by instituting reforms to stop what he called
junk science from being admitted into the courtrooms, by applying
caps to damage judgments and limiting the ability for litigators to
bend the rules to select favorable venues.
Tom Briones, owner of Briones
Business Law Consulting in Albuquerque, said that from the perspective of a lawyer
working with the local business community the biggest obstacle he and
his clients typically have is with the slow pace that lawsuits travel through the state's court system.
He cited a
wrongful death case he and his firm were working on that had begun in
2015 and was not expected to go to trial until 2018.
“Right now the
state simply doesn't have enough judges and staff to handle the
number of civil cases before the system,” Briones said,
He said the driving force behind the overburdening of the
state's legal system is that New Mexico's current rules for selecting
venues makes it very easy for lawyers to get cases tried in
jurisdictions that they perceive as being beneficial to them.
Briones added that cases are heavily focused in areas where either
the lawyer has a positive relationship with judges or where they
are perceived as being more friendly to civil suits. This trend has
grown to the point where lawyers are moving their cases from other
states to New Mexico, he said.
“New Mexico's poor ranking has created an effect like there has been a dip in the water
level and now it is flowing in from all of the nearby regions including
Texas and Colorado," he said.