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Breaking new ground, the New Mexico Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that a claim for the loss of companionship of a partner is not limited to married couples. Legal activists believe the recent ruling will apply to same-sex couples. The origins of the case start with plaintiff Ubaldo Loyoza, whose car was rear-ended twice, first in 1999 and then again in 2000. He suffered back injuries in both accidents. Ubaldo Loyoza married Sara Loyoza in the 10-month interim between incidents. The district court in Albuquerque, N.M., had granted defendant Diego Sanchez a directed verdict against Sara Loyoza’s claim for loss of consortium arising from the first crash, but had allowed her claim for the second collision. The New Mexico Court of Appeals affirmed. FORESEEABILITY AND DUTY But under the most litigated of all negligence doctrines — foreseeability and duty — the state Supreme Court reasoned that since there was foreseeability of harm to Sara, a duty of due care was owed to her. Conceptually, this means that a negligent driver will likely be liable to another plaintiff who might not apparently or literally be in the zone of immediate danger. The court found that no public policy precluded it from reaching that conclusion. Indeed, it found that New Mexico’s duty standard “says nothing about the legal relationship between the victim and the claimant,” and left it to juries to decide “whether a plaintiff had a sufficient enough relational interest with the victim” to recover. The court insisted it was not recognizing common-law marriage or extending its benefits or responsibilities. It did, however, give a presumption of a close familial relationship to couples who meet the common-law marriage elements in those states that allow such marriages — in essence, the assumption of marital rights, duties and obligations. This same presumption would be afforded couples engaged to be married and living together. For all other couples, by a preponderance of the evidence, “[c]laimants must prove an intimate familial relationship,” the opinion said. The standard, among other factors, “must take into account the duration of the relationship; the degree of mutual dependence; the extent of common contributions to a life together; the extent and quality of shared experience.” The relationship would also have to be exclusive. Loyoza v. Sanchez, 66 P.3d 948 (N.M. 2003). In Loyoza, Sara had taken Ubaldo’s last name. They had lived together for 30 years, raised three children and owned a home together for 15 years. The Loyozas’ attorney was miffed that the state’s highest court was needed to resolve the case. “The district courts should be in the forefront, should be more courageous to take steps to recognize claims of plaintiffs even if they are on the edge of other recognized claims, when it is clear that it’s a logical extension of existing claims,” said Narciso Garcia Jr., an Albuquerque solo practitioner. An attorney with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national gay and lesbian rights organization, said the decision is an important one. “Because the court did look at the quality of the relationship rather than the legal technicality in determining that this committed couple should be treated like any other couple that agreed to mutually care and support each other,” said Brian Chase, a Lambda staff attorney. Noting that the decision was in gender-neutral language, he added, “I would hope that the court would follow the same rule for a gay or lesbian couple who were similarly situated and loved and supported each other for years.” Gregory Steinman of Albuquerque’s Madison, Harbour, Mroz & Brennan, who represents both Diego Sanchez, the first driver to collide with Loyoza, and Sanchez’s employer, declined to comment.

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