Hospital Held Liable for Hiring Incompetent Contractor

The Court of Appeals of the State of New Mexico affirms verdict in Talbott v. Roswell Hospital Corporation. Slack Davis Sanger represented plaintiffs in this Roswell, New Mexico case.

In a decision of first impression, the Court of Appeals of the State of New Mexico has affirmed a judgment in favor of Kim Talbott and Bonnie Talbott, who sued Eastern New Mexico Medical Center after their 21-year-old son, Damon K. Talbott, died in an air ambulance helicopter crash near Roswell, New Mexico on October 19, 2001. The crash occurred during an air ambulance training exercise with New Mexico State Police. This appeal arose from the case’s second jury trial.

The Talbotts alleged in their lawsuit that the Roswell Hospital Corporation, which does business as Eastern New Mexico Medical Center, was liable for negligently hiring the helicopter contractor, Medical Air Transport (MAT). Another New Mexico State Police Officer, Ramon Robert Solis, was killed in the crash and Officer Jennifer Schurman was seriously injured. The pilot also survived.

Damon Talbott and the other officers had been training in how to utilize the helicopter at accident scenes. The pilot took them for a demonstration ride after their landing zone training had concluded. The pilot was engaging in low-level maneuvers when he lost control of the aircraft, causing it to crash.

The Talbotts alleged that MAT and its pilots were incompetent, pointing to numerous problems in MAT’s history as a commercial helicopter operator. The hospital executive charged with investigating the feasibility of launching an air ambulance service at the hospital admitted not making any inquiry about MAT’s past nor having any idea of what questions to ask to assess MAT’s competence.

In the first trial, jurors took only a few hours to return a unanimous verdict, finding the hospital corporation guilty of negligence in connection with its selection and investigation of MAT.

The hospital appealed the district court decision, which resulted in the New Mexico Court of Appeals reversing and remanding the case to the district court for a new trial. The Court of Appeals faulted the trial judge for directing a verdict on whether a contractual relationship existed between MAT and the hospital saying the question should have been decided by the jury.

In June, 2006, a second jury also ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on all issues and awarded the Talbotts damages. After a second appeal by the hospital, the Court of Appeals affirmed the 2006 decision on June 4, 2008. In doing so, the three-judge panel of the appellate court unanimously agreed that the hospital could be held liable for negligently hiring an incompetent helicopter contractor and found adequate evidence supporting the jury’s verdict.

The Court rejected the hospital’s argument that it could rely solely on MAT’s licensure by the Federal Aviation Administration, stating that the hospital could not “…avoid liability by blindly relying on an independent contractor’s licensure to establish its competence. On the contrary, the question regarding the lengths to which the Hospital was required to go to investigate [MAT’s] reputation, based on the skill required to provide air ambulance services and the dangerousness of such work, was a factual one that was correctly left to the jury’s discretion.”

“This was a senseless crash. The hospital had no idea what it was doing when it selected MAT. No one at the hospital bothered to pick up the phone and make any inquiry whatsoever. If MAT had not been selected as the operator for the Roswell hospital, this crash would not have occurred. Even the hospital’s own executives agreed with the Talbotts on that point. For almost seven years the hospital and its management have failed to take responsibility for this tragic crash and their irresponsibility in causing it. Now the Court of Appeals has told them very clearly that they are liable and why,” said lead attorney Michael L. Slack of Slack Davis Sanger, L.L.P. a nationally recognized aviation law firm based in Austin, Texas. Attorney Michael Worley of Sanders, Bruin, Coll & Worley, P.A. in Roswell served as co-counsel.

Slack added, “MAT had a poor safety record and now the hospital has been held accountable by two juries and the New Mexico Court of Appeals. Hopefully other hospitals that are contemplating air ambulance relationships will take note that the public expects them to screen prospective operators and juries and judges will hold them accountable when they don’t. This is especially important given the rash of air ambulance helicopter crashes that have plagued this country in recent years. Bonnie and Kim Talbott can take some comfort in knowing that Damon’s death leaves a legacy of making air ambulance operations safer by giving hospitals incentives to turn away incompetent and unfit operators.”

Case Chronology
October 19, 2001: New Mexico State Police Officer Damon K. Talbott killed in medical helicopter crash in New Mexico which kills another officer and seriously injures a third officer.

September 16, 2003: Jurors in Roswell, New Mexico returned a verdict after a week-long civil suit against the Roswell Hospital Corporation/Eastern New Mexico Medical Center in Roswell, New Mexico, awarding the parents of deceased Damon Talbott $3,200,000 in damages.

June 22, 2005: The hospital appealed the decision, which resulted in The Court of Appeals of the State of New Mexico reversing the 2003 decision due to technicalities. The case is set for retrial.

June 2, 2006: On retrial, a second jury reaches a $3,229,000 verdict in plaintiffs’ favor. The hospital appeals, alleging other errors by the district court.

June 4, 2008: The New Mexico Court of Appeals recognizes the plaintiffs’ basis of recovery and affirms the 2006 jury verdict.

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