— NM Cops and Courts Beat Guide

Tort claims

Most states (including New Mexico) and the federal government have a tort claims act.

Tort claims acts dictate the things a person must do before he can sue the governmental entity for damages (outside of constitutional civil rights violations), such as file a tort claim, as well as caps on damages and statutes of limitations, both for bringing a lawsuit and filing a tort claim.

Federal civil rights violations do not require a tort claim to be filed.

Tort claims are usually, but not always, submit to the clerk (for municipalities), and/or the risk management division of the entity.

In New Mexico, tort claims are a public record and no exception covers them, unless they were filed with the Risk Management Division.

If they were filed with the Risk Management Division, they are not considered to be public records until six months after the statute of limitations has expired or a settlement has been reached, that is, the case is “closed.”

The Santa Fe New Mexican and Santa Fe Reporter both wrote about this issue.

That same caveat goes for settlement agreements.

Why request them?

Tort claims are important to request because the public entity could be sued, if it does not settle the case before a lawsuit is filed (although lawsuits are not always filed, even if the entity does not settle).

Usually, the decision to settle or not is up to the entity’s insurance company and adjusters, as well as person claiming he was wronged somehow.

Sometimes tort claims are as simple as a fender bender involving an entity-owned vehicle but often tort claims are filed for alleged police misconduct, including brutality.

For jails, the tort claims often range from wrongful death to brutality to an inmate being attacked by other inmates to unsanitary jail conditions.

Not only are tort claims important because of financial liability, but they are usually indicative of bad behavior or practices at an entity. Think police brutality or a wrongful death at a jail.

As a journalist, it might be worthwhile to consider compiling all of the tort claims you collect into a spreadsheet listing the alleged wrongdoers, the entities, and the type of alleged wronging involved.

This can help to find trends, say, about a specific intersection that is causing car crashes due to a lack of upkeep or a police officer who keeps causing tort claims due to a excessive force.

Settlement Agreements

Tort claims often result in lawsuits and lawsuits (and some tort claims) often end with settlement agreements.

Entities enter into settlement agreements to, well, settle claims. Settlement agreements are so important because almost every time, they include the dollar amount an entity (or its insurance company) paid to settle a lawsuit or claim.

When a lawsuit has been dismissed with prejudice, following a stipulated motion, that usually means there is a settlement agreement.

For every court case you think has settled, you should request the settlement agreement.

This is, of course, dependent on who the insurer is.

If the insurer is the Risk Management Division, there is a 90-day hold placed on the documents.

Some more complex agreements require entities to take certain actions. Think of the consent decree the Albuquerque Police Department entered with the Department of Justice for all of its police shootings.

Just like with tort claims and lawsuits, it is advisable to track this information in a spreadsheet.

However, pay attention to the line about attorneys fees. Often, a settlement agreement will state that each party will bear its own attorney fees, which means that the actual amount received by the plaintiff as a result of the settlement is much lower than the amount being proffered.

The settlement amount can easily be a column in a spreadsheet tracking lawsuits, tort claims, or both.

Please keep in mind that New Mexico courts have consistently found that even if an entity entered into an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) as a condition of a settlement agreement, courts have repeatedly found that IPRA supercedes any non-disclosure agreements and this cannot be used to hide records.

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