January 20, 2018

Colorado Court of Appeals: Jury Award of Zero Noneconomic Damages Appropriate Where Injuries were De Minimis

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Miller v. Hancock on Thursday, November 16, 2017.

Non-economic Damages—Jury Award—De Minimis—Pre-Offer Costs—Pretrial Offer of Settlement.

Plaintiff Miller was involved in an automobile accident with defendants, Aragon and Hancock. Miller sued Aragon and Hancock to recover economic and noneconomic damages that he suffered as a result of that accident. Before trial, both Aragon and Hancock made statutory offers of settlement to Miller pursuant to C.R.S. § 13-17-202. The jury awarded Miller only economic damages. Miller filed a motion for new trial on damages, which the trial court denied. Each of the parties also moved to recover their costs, Miller as the prevailing party, and Aragon and Hancock pursuant to C.R.S. § 13-17-202, arguing that the final judgment Miller recovered did not exceed their respective pretrial settlement offers. The court did not award Miller costs against Hancock, but awarded Hancock the entire amount of her claimed costs that accrued after her first offer. The court awarded costs in favor of Miller and against Aragon and denied Aragon’s request for costs.

On appeal, Miller contended that the trial court erred by denying his motion for new trial on damages. He argued that a jury’s failure to award noneconomic damages is impermissible as a matter of law when the jury returns a verdict awarding economic damages. Miller contended that it was undisputed that his injuries were more than de minimis; however, his characterizations of the relevant facts and evidence lack record support. The jury could have reasonably concluded that Miller’s injuries from the accident were de minimis. Thus, the record here was sufficient to support the jury’s award of zero noneconomic damages.

Miller also argued that the trial court should have included his pre-offer costs when determining whether Hancock’s pretrial offers of settlement exceeded the amount Miller recovered from Hancock at trial. Whether a statutory offer includes pre-offer costs depends on the language of the offer. Hancock’s offers unambiguously included costs, so Miller was entitled to have his pre-offer costs included in his final judgment for the purpose of determining whether either of Hancock’s offers entitled her to recover her post-offer costs pursuant to C.R.S. § 13-17-202. Thus, the trial court erred by interpreting Hancock’s offers to exclude costs.

Miller next argued that the trial court erroneously reduced the costs he was entitled to recover, yet awarded Hancock the entire amount of her claimed costs without subjecting her costs to similar scrutiny. Here, the trial court abused its discretion when it reduced the amount of Miller’s recoverable costs without making adequate findings as to whether those costs were reasonable and necessary.

The order denying Miller’s motion for a new trial on damages was affirmed. The awards of costs to Hancock and Miller were reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings to determine Miller’s costs and whether, after determining Miller’s costs, Hancock made a settlement offer pursuant to C.R.S. § 13-17-202 that exceeds the amount of Miller’s final judgment, inclusive of pre-offer costs and interest.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

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