New Mexico quietly settles claims each month - Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico quietly settles claims each month

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Nine years ago, Christopher Paiz left a psychiatric hospital and stabbed his mother to death, according to a lawsuit filed by his mom’s estate.

The ensuing litigation came to a quiet close last year – with a $75,000 settlement from the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute, which had released Paiz.

The settlement isn’t unusual.

Roughly once every two weeks last year, New Mexico settled a legal claim for over $25,000, according to documents released to the Journal under the state Inspection of Public Records Act.

Hanna Bruch

The 26 settlements totaled nearly $5 million. One settlement alone reached $1 million – for a surgical patient who said the University of New Mexico Hospital was responsible for his MRSA infection.

The settlements cover a broad variety of allegations against the state and other government agencies represented by the Risk Management Division of the state General Services Department.

About 34 percent of the money paid out in the 26 settlements centered on medical claims; another 34 percent involved employment disputes, including claims under the Whistleblower Protection Act; and 17 percent was for motor vehicle collisions, including pedestrian deaths, according to a Journal analysis.

The rest involved incidents at Expo New Mexico, property seizure, incarceration and various other claims.

The cases are largely settled without public scrutiny. The state typically denies the allegations and notes that it’s agreeing to settle simply as a compromise to avoid the cost of ongoing litigation.

Agreements often contain a confidentiality clause, prohibiting the parties from talking about the settlement in detail.

Six-month secrecy

State law also prohibits the disclosure of Risk Management Division settlements within 180 days. After the six-month waiting period, however, the documents can be released under the Inspection of Public Records Act.

Settlements by government agencies that don’t rely on state risk management – such as the city of Albuquerque, which is self-insured – cannot withhold documents for six months.

“The public suffers the longer it has to wait for public records,” said Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, a nonprofit group that advocates for transparency. “That’s just common sense.”

There are sometimes disputes, she said, over when the state’s 180-day waiting period begins, but the foundation believes the “statute should be read very narrowly” to ensure the public is entitled to inspect the records as soon as possible.

The 180 days, Majors said, should begin as soon as the settlement is made final.

State defense

The Risk Management Division provides the legal defense for a variety of public agencies – including the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute – when requested, according to the General Services Department.

Settlement payments come out of the state Public Liability Fund, but individual agencies also contribute out of their own budgets when needed.

The liability fund made about $16.1 million in payments altogether to resolve cases in fiscal 2017, according to the Risk Management Division’s latest annual report.

Roughly 50 law firms, with attorneys throughout New Mexico, are on contract to help defend the state.

Who’s settling?

Here’s a look at some of the cases settled in 2017, now that the six-month wait has expired:

• $175,000 for the family of Hanna Bruch, a 14-year-old girl from Santa Fe. She died in 2013 after ingesting MDMA, a hallucinogenic drug, while attending an electronic dance music concert at Expo New Mexico, which is owned by the state, according a wrongful death suit filed by her estate in 2015.

The state settled the case in December last year. It denied liability and Expo New Mexico agreed not to allow its facilities to be used for electronic dance music concerts.

• $75,000 for the estate of Mary Jane Paiz-Piedra, who died in 2009. The lawsuit filed by her estate alleges that her son, Christopher Paiz, stabbed her in the neck the same day he was released from a psychiatric hospital.

The suit alleged that the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas, N.M., and other defendants either knew, or should have known, that Paiz was a danger to his mother.

Paiz had a history of mental health problems, including schizophrenia, the suit said, and he had threatened violence against his mother and other family members.

The Behavioral Health Institute, in turn, argued that Paiz-Piedra had agreed to accept her son into her Roswell home after his release from the hospital and knew he was coming. The hospital also said her estate had filed the lawsuit too late.

Online court records show Paiz was charged with murder in 2009 and later referred for an evaluation to determine whether he was competent to stand trial. The final legal entry says he was sent back to the hospital for treatment.

• $1 million for James and Diane Woodard, after they filed a medical negligence lawsuit against the University of New Mexico Hospital and others. James Woodard alleged that he was exposed to MRSA – a type of staph infection – and that the hospital was responsible for an infection that led to a dozen surgeries, leaving him in a wheelchair.

He had initially gone to the hospital for back surgery.

The Woodards sued in 2013, a jury found in their favor in 2016 and the case was settled in August last year.

• $476,000 for Catherine Johnson, a former Corrections Department employee who alleged the state retaliated against her after she raised questions about the propriety of a procurement decision.

Johnson, who managed an education program for inmates, was initially fired, then reinstated after an arbitrator ruled in her favor, but not to the same position she’d held before, according to her lawsuit.

The state denied the allegations and said it had non-retaliatory reasons for its actions.

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