City faces string of wrongful death suits

By Andy Jackson: CNJ staff writer

The city of Clovis is facing a rash of wrongful death lawsuits after years of having none, according to city officials and the state’s court Web site.

Four wrongful death lawsuits filed against the city since 2003 are pending. Three of the wrongful death lawsuits have been filed since June.

City Attorney Dave Richards said the recent number of wrongful death lawsuits is unusual. He said he is unaware of any others before 2003.

“I don’t know if this (wrongful death suits) is random or a trend, there’s no way to judge that,” said Richards, who has been with the city since the mid-1980s.

No wrongful death complaints were filed against the city in 9th Judicial District Court between March 1989 and 2002, according to the New Mexico Courts Web site.

But wrongful death claims may be handled out of court, Richards said, and settled by the city’s insurance company.

The city can deny claims, said Clovis Purchasing Agent David Boswell, whose office helps handle the claims, but individuals can still sue.

The city is an inviting target because it has money and insurance, according to Clovis Police Public Information Officer Lt. James Schoeffel.

“We live in a lawsuit-driven society,” he said.

The police department is involved in two of the four pending wrongful death suits.

By nature, the police department and infrastructure maintenance exposes the city to liability, City Manager Joe Thomas said.

State statutes limit the amount a defendant can seek in a civil action against the city to $750,000 in most wrongful death cases, according to Richards.

The city paid Clovis Insurance Inc. a $1.3 million premium for liability insurance in 2005 on a policy with a $25,000 deductible, Boswell said. It has paid almost $250,000 in claims and deductibles in the last three years, he said.

In all, the city was named as a defendant in 33 cases filed at the 9th Judicial District Court between 2003 and 2005, according to the state’s court Web site. In the last decade, the highest number of cases the city had filed against it in a single year was 35 in 2000. The city was listed as a defendant or co-defendant in numerous foreclosure cases filed by mortgage companies and banks, according to the Web site.

Most recently, the city was sued for wrongful death by the family of a 71-year-old Clovis woman who was struck and killed by a police vehicle being driven by on-duty Clovis Police Lt. Roger Grah.

An investigation by the New Mexico State Police cleared Grah of criminal wrongdoing, yet the family is seeking unspecified damages.
That’s why the city employs insurers — to hire attorneys to handle litigation and cover costs, said Thomas.

Richards said separate investigations into claims are conducted by the city and the city’s insurance company through its adjuster. Settlement will be pursued, Richards said, if it’s determined the city was negligent and caused damage, he said.

Insurers look at reports surrounding a particular claim and determine if the case can be defended in court, or if it should be settled in arbitration, or outside of court, Boswell said.

And the city tries to reduce its liability and the number of claims, through training, Boswell said.

The following is an overview of wrongful death lawsuits pending against the city of Clovis:

• A 3-year-old boy visiting his grandmother from Dallas drowned in June 2005 at the city-owned Potter Park pool. The family’s attorney, Michael Garrett of Clovis, would not disclose the amount of compensation being sought.

The case heads to mediation at the end of March.

• A 71-year-old Clovis woman was struck and killed in December by a police vehicle being driven by on-duty Clovis Police Lt. Roger Grah.
An investigation by the New Mexico State Police cleared Grah of criminal wrongdoing in the death of Delores Jacks, yet the family is seeking unspecified damages.

The case is being reviewed for settlement and no trial date set, according to the 9th Judicial District Court Clerk’s Office.

• A 39-year-old Clovis woman died in July 2003 after she was pinned between two vehicles. Joe Martinez, who was sentenced to 14 1/2 years in prison for vehicular homicide in April 2005, was intoxicated and trying to evade police, according to police reports, when the accident happened. The civil complaint alleges a Clovis police officer was negligent and didn’t warn of an impending chase, which led to Bobbie Sandoval’s death and violated state laws of police pursuit. Police have denied any wrongdoing.

In 2003 attorney Eric Dixon told the CNJ he planned to seek $750,000 for Sandoval’s death.

A jury trial has been set to begin Aug. 21.

• A 64-year-old Clovis man, LaRoy Lockmiller, was killed in June 2005 when the vehicle he was driving was struck by a Clovis Fire Department truck responding to a grass fire.

A New Mexico State Police investigation following the accident showed neither driver at fault, and cited the narrow road, low visibility and an extreme weight difference between the vehicles as factors.

Garrett wouldn’t say the amount of damages he is seeking on behalf of Lockmiller’s wife.

No trial dates have been set, according to the 9th Judicial District Court Clerk’s Office.