August 19, 2018

Colorado Court of Appeals: CGIA Bars Father’s Claims that City Breached a Duty of Care to Prevent Son’s Death

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in L.J. v. Carracito on Thursday, January 11, 2018.

Wrongful Death—Child Protection Act of 1987—Colorado Governmental Immunity Act—Police Officer—Failure to Report Child Abuse—Public Entity—Vicarious Liability—Tort—Willful and Wanton—Exemplary Damages.

D.J.M., age 2, died after suffering a beating by his mother’s boyfriend. D.J.M.’s father brought an action against the City of Colorado Springs (City) and Officer Carricato, individually and in his capacity as an officer with the City of Colorado Springs Police Department, for failing to report child abuse that father complained about to them multiple times. The complaint alleged violation of the Child Protection Act of 1987 (CPA); negligence (wrongful death) by the City and Officer Carricato; negligence per se by the City and Officer Carricato; violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by the City and Officer Carricato; vicarious liability against the City; and an entitlement to exemplary damages under C.R.S. § 24-10-118(1)(c) against Officer Carricato. The district court determined that while the negligence claims for wrongful death and negligence per se were barred by the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA), the claim for violation of the CPA was not barred because it was not a claim based in tort. The district court allowed the claim for vicarious liability to stand insofar as it related to the violation of the CPA and found, without conducting a hearing under Trinity Broadcasting of Denver, Inc. v. City of Westminster, that the complaint alleged a sufficient factual basis to support a claim of willful and wanton behavior.

On appeal, the City and Officer Carricato argued that the district court erred because the CGIA bars the claim for violation of the CPA and father’s complaint does not allege specific facts sufficient to support a finding that Officer Carricato’s conduct was willful and wanton. The City is undisputedly a “public entity.” The exceptions to sovereign immunity are not applicable here because (1) the enumerated statutory exceptions are not at issue; (2) the CPA does not fit within any of the statutory exceptions; and (3) father is not requesting equitable, remedial, or non-compensatory remedies. Here, the essence of father’s claim is that the City breached a duty of care owed to D.J.M., which caused his death. Because father’s claim lies or could lie in tort, the CGIA bars the claim against the City for alleged violation of the CPA. Thus, the district court improperly denied that part of the motion to dismiss. Similarly, the vicarious liability claims are claims that lie in tort or could lie in tort and are thus barred by the CGIA.

Furthermore, public employees are immune from liability for tort claims unless their act or omission was willful and wanton. The district court must determine whether the conduct was in fact willful or wanton. Here, the district court failed to hold a Trinity hearing on this issue.

Finally, Officer Carricato argued that the claim for exemplary damages cannot stand because it was improperly pleaded and that exemplary damages cannot be awarded against a police officer. The CGIA allows a claim for exemplary damages against public employees only if their conduct was willful and wanton. The claim for exemplary damages against the police officer was prematurely pled.

The portions of the judgment on the claims against the City, the vicarious liability claim, and the exemplary damages claim were reversed. The portion of the judgment relating to the claims against Officer Carricato was remanded.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

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