June 25, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Colorado Governmental Immunity Act Does Not Apply Retroactively

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Smokebrush Foundation v. City of Colorado Springs on Thursday, June 18, 2015.

Colorado Governmental Immunity Act—Gas Facility Exception—Public Building Exception.

The Smokebrush Foundation (Smokebrush) alleged that various contaminants had migrated from the City of Colorado Spring’s (City) property onto its property, causing damages. The district court denied the City’s motion to dismiss, concluding that the City’s immunity was waived under two statutory provisions of the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA): the gas facility exception and the public building exception. The district court also concluded that these waiver provisions applied retroactively to contamination that undisputedly occurred before the CGIA was enacted.

On appeal, the City argued that the trial court erred in finding that the CGIA applied retroactively. Nothing in the CGIA states that it is intended to operate retroactively. Therefore, the CGIA operates prospectively, effective July 1, 1972. Accordingly, to the extent that Smokebrush’s allegations were based on contamination stemming from the City’s coal gas operations in the 1920s and 1930s, the district court erred in concluding that the gas facility or public building exceptions to governmental immunity applied retroactively. The City is therefore immune from tort claims based on such contamination.

The City argued that the district court erred in concluding that the City was subject to suit under the gas facility and public building exceptions to governmental immunity for the injuries claimed by Smokebrush from alleged asbestos migration during the demolition activities on the property beginning in late 2012. The legislature waived governmental immunity for injuries resulting from “[t]he operation and maintenance of any public water facility, gas facility, sanitation facility, electrical facility, power facility, or swimming facility by such public entity.” Because the City’s property was not used in the collection, production, or distribution of natural gas and only housed administrative functions after the 1930s, the gas facility exception did not apply. Governmental immunity is also waived for injuries resulting from a dangerous condition of a public building. Although the City acknowledged that the property was a public building, this exception only applies to “constructing” and “maintaining” a public building. When the asbestos allegedly migrated to Smokebrush’s property, the property was in the process of being completely demolished. The dangerous condition definition applicable to the public building exception does not expressly recognize negligence claims stemming from demolition of a public facility. Therefore, the public building exception did not apply. The order denying the City’s motion to dismiss was reversed and the case was remanded to the district court with instructions to grant the motion.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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