Thursday, February 27, 2014

Mexican high court awards punitive damages in Acapulco hotel electrocution case

Guadalajara -
In an unusual case demonstrating the application of U.S. tort law principles, Mexico's Supreme Judicial Court has socked a major Acapulco hotel chain with a 30 million peso judgment in a wrongful death case, overturning two lower court rulings which had awarded the plaintiffs far less. At the current exchange rate the judgment is worth more than $2.3 million dollars.

The defendant in the case was the Admivac Group, owner of the Mayan Palace and the Grand Maya of Acapulco. The lawsuit was brought by the parents of Ángel Sinue García Medina, who died at the former in October 2010.

Ángel and his girlfriend decided to kayak in the hotel's artificial lake. But their boat overturned and both were electrocuted due to a short circuit in one of the lake's water fountains.

A trial judge awarded Ángel's survivors a judgment of eight million pesos. But they appealed, arguing the court had disregarded what the young man would have earned during his lifetime. A decedent's lost earnings are a common component of personal injury and wrongful death awards in U.S. courts.

An intermediate appellate court cut that award to a million pesos, however, ruling "no one should be enriched or impoverished" by the incident. Ángel's parents took a final appeal to Mexico's Supreme Court (SCJN), which this week handed them a significant victory.

A five judge panel of the 11 member SCJN found gross negligence on the part of the hotel, noting the staff did not turn off the electricity to the fountain until 20 minutes after the accident. Although a hotel physician was on duty he had no adequate equipment to resuscitate the victims, and did little more than summon an ambulance. Evidence was presented at trial that Mayan Palace management tried to cover up the facts of the case, eliminating the word electrocution from internal reports, and harshly accused Ángel's parents of trying to profit from his death.

Those factors, coupled with the hotel's treatment of Ángel's parents which judicial ministers called "humiliating," prompted the SCJN to increase the judgment to 30 million pesos, including damages for "moral injury." The latter are the approximate equivalent of punitive damages* in U.S. courts.

"In this case evidence was presented demonstrating the serious impact of the defendant's conduct upon the sensibilities of the decedent's parents, who were forced to deal with the the loss of their only child, as well as the defendant's extreme negligence and significant economic resources," wrote the unanimous panel. Much like American courts, the SCJN took into account the hotel chain's income and net worth in its ruling.

Judge Arturo Zaldívar Lelo de Larrea noted the judgment was designed not only to compensate Ángel's family, but to punish the Admivac Group for failing to adequately protect its clients and discharge its general "social responsibilities."

In most American trials juries, not judges, determine the amount of punitive damages in cases where the award of such is permitted by law. But U.S. appellate courts always have the authority to reduce or eliminate punitive damages, and they frequently do so. In this week's decision Mexico's Supreme Judicial Court did the opposite, something an American tribunal would have been powerless to do.

In Mexico large damage awards to civil plaintiffs are unusual, and commonly consist only of whatever actual economic losses the claimant is able to prove, without regard to alleged emotional injuries.

* Punitive damages are awarded in the United States "to punish a wrongdoer for malicious, vindictive, or willful and wanton invasion of another's rights, with the ultimate purpose being to restrain and deter others from the commission of similar wrongs. [Cerretti v. Flint Hills Rural Electric Co-op Ass'n., 251 Kan. 347, 837 P.2d 330 (1992)]. The theory [is] that the defendant deserves punishment for wrongful acts and that it is proper for the public to impose them upon the defendant. [Smith v. Printup, 262 Kan. 587, 938 P.2d 1261 (1997)]."

Sept. 28, 2013 - Mexican Supreme Court establishes U.S. property division rules in divorce cases
Dec. 5, 2013 - U.N. selects Mexico's Supreme Judicial Court for Defense of Human Rights Award
Jan. 16, 2014 - Mexican judges: warrantless cell phone tracking is legal

© MGR 2014. All rights reserved. This article may be cited or briefly quoted with proper attribution or a hyperlink, but not reproduced without permission.

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