July 21, 2018

Colorado Court of Appeals: Governmental Immunity May Be Waived for Operation or Maintenance of Public Facility Performed by Independent Contractor

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Lopez v. City of Grand Junction on Thursday, July 12, 2018.

Negligence—Colorado Governmental Immunity Act—Waiver—Independent Contractor—Maintenance Work.

The underground maintenance of a public traffic light in Grand Junction breached a natural gas line. Gas from the ruptured line leaked into the surrounding ground and a sewer main and migrated to a house, resulting in an explosion. Lopez, Pierson, and Gimmeson (plaintiffs) brought negligence claims against the City of Grand Junction (City) for their resultant personal injuries and property damage. Plaintiffs’ complaint alleges, among other things, that the City breached its duty of care to safely maintain its utility, electric, and sewer lines. As pertinent here, the complaint alleged that the City contracted with Apeiron Utility Construction (Apeiron) to upgrade utility lines that powered a traffic light; during this maintenance project Apeiron ruptured a gas line; and the leaking gas resulted in the house explosion. The complaint further alleged that Apeiron’s conduct should be imputed to the City. The City moved to dismiss these negligence claims for lack of jurisdiction under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(1), asserting governmental immunity under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA). The court granted the motion.

On appeal, plaintiffs contended that the district court erroneously concluded that Apeiron’s conduct in maintaining the traffic light was not attributable to the City for purposes of waiving the City’s immunity under C.R.S. § 24-10-106(1)(f). For purposes of the immunity waiver in C.R.S. § 24-10-106(1)(f), a public entity maintains a public facility even if it hires an independent contractor to perform the maintenance. Here, plaintiffs met their burden to establish a waiver of immunity as to their negligence claims against the City.

Plaintiffs next asserted that the district court erred when it dismissed their negligence claim against the City as to its operation and maintenance of its sewer main. Plaintiffs asserted that the City’s failure to keep the main free of invasive roots was a failure to maintain that waived liability under the CGIA. Based on the record, plaintiffs failed to meet their burden to prove a waiver.

The dismissal of plaintiffs’ negligence claim against the City as to its operation and maintenance of its sewer main was affirmed. The dismissal of the negligence claims against the City for Apeiron’s maintenance work on the traffic light was reversed and the case was remanded.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Contract Between Private Cable Provider and Government Void Because It Does Not Provide for Annual Appropriations

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Falcon Broadband, Inc. v. Banning Lewis Ranch Metropolitan District No. 1 on Thursday, June 28, 2018.

Contract—Colorado Governmental Immunity Act—Tort—Civil Conspiracy—Unjust Enrichment—Promissory Estoppel—Annual Appropriation—Attorney Fees.

Falcon Broadband, Inc. (Falcon) signed a contract, the “Bulk Services Agreement” (BSA), with Banning Lewis Ranch Metropolitan District No. 1 (the District) to provide Internet and cable services to Banning Lewis Ranch area residents. Under the BSA, the District granted Falcon the exclusive right to provide Internet and cable services to residents for a monthly per-resident fee. The BSA states that it remains in effect until 2,700 homes in the development are occupied, which hasn’t yet occurred. The District later disavowed the BSA, stopped paying Falcon, and stopped collecting fees from residents. Falcon sued the District, its directors, and Oakwood Homes, LLC (the developer) and related Oakwood entities (collectively, Oakwood).  The district court dismissed Falcon’s complaint in part as barred by the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA) and granted summary judgment in defendants’ favor on the remaining claims not subject to dismissal under the CGIA.

On appeal, Falcon contended that the district court erred in its application of the CGIA and in granting summary judgment. It is undisputed that the District is a public entity within the meaning and protection of the CGIA. Thus, the district court properly dismissed the civil conspiracy claim against the District because that claim is undeniably a tort claim. However, the court improperly dismissed the unjust enrichment and promissory estoppel claims as sounding in tort because they were grounded in contracts; the district court should have granted summary judgment to the District on these claims. The district court properly granted the District summary judgment on the breach of contract, breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and declaratory judgment claims. The District directors are also protected by the CGIA, and the district court should have dismissed the claims against them. All of the Oakwood entities are private associations; thus, the district court erred in dismissing some claims against Oakwood under the CGIA.

Falcon also contended that the district court erred by determining that the BSA is void and by entering summary judgment on its tortious interference and civil conspiracy claims regardless of the BSA’s validity. The BSA is void under C.R.S. § 29-1-110 because it is a multi-year contract that does not provide that the obligation to pay is subject to annual appropriations. Because all of Falcon’s claims are premised on the BSA’s validity, only its unjust enrichment claim against Oakwood survives.

The District and the directors cross-appealed, arguing that the court erred by failing to award them attorney fees under C.R.S. § 13-17-201. Because the gist of Falcon’s action against the District was the District’s failure to perform the BSA, not its commission of any tort, and those claims were dismissed on summary judgment, the District is not entitled to fees. On the other hand, the only claims Falcon brought against the directors were tort claims. Because Falcon’s entire action against the directors should have been dismissed under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(1) as tort claims barred by the CGIA, the directors are entitled to an award of their reasonable attorney fees under C.R.S. § 13-17-201. The directors are also entitled to an award of their reasonable attorney fees incurred in their successful appeal under C.R.S. § 13-17-201.

The judgment was affirmed on all claims except Falcon’s unjust enrichment claim against Oakwood, which was reversed. The district court’s denial of the District’s request for attorney fees was affirmed. The district court’s denial of the directors’ request for attorney fees was reversed and the case was remanded to determine those fees.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Road Condition Did Not Create “Unreasonable Risk,” Therefore CGIA Applied

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in City & County of Denver v. Dennis on Monday, May 21, 2018.

Colorado Governmental Immunity Act—Sovereign Immunity.

The supreme court considered whether the City and County of Denver waived its immunity under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA). After a motorcycle accident, plaintiff sued the City and County of Denver, and alleged that Denver had waived its immunity under the CGIA because the road on which plaintiff was traveling constituted a dangerous condition that physically interfered with the movement of traffic. To prove a dangerous condition, a plaintiff must prove four elements, one of which is that the road constituted an unreasonable risk to the health and safety of the public.

The court defined “unreasonable risk” in this context as a road condition that creates a chance of injury, damage, or loss that exceeds the bounds of reason. This determination will be fact specific, and in this case, the road did not create an unreasonable risk to the health and safety of the public. Nor did the condition of the road physically interfere with the movement of traffic.

The court reversed the court of appeals’ judgment.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Petitioners’ Tort Claims for Airborne Asbestos Injuries Not Barred by Colorado Governmental Immunity Act

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Smokebrush Foundation v. City of Colorado Springs on Monday, February 5, 2018.

Colorado Governmental Immunity Act—Sovereign Immunity.

In this case, the Colorado Supreme Court reviewed the Colorado Court of Appeals division’s conclusion that petitioners’ claims against respondent city were barred under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA). Petitioners asserted a number of tort claims for alleged injuries resulting from airborne asbestos released during demolition activities on the city’s property in 2013 and from the subsurface migration of coal tar pollutants created by historical coal gasification operations on the city’s property. The division concluded that each of these claims was barred under the CGIA.

The supreme court first addressed whether petitioners’ asbestos-related claims fell within the waiver of immunity set forth in C.R.S. § 24-10-106(1)(c) for injuries resulting from the dangerous condition of a public building. The CGIA defines a “dangerous condition,” in pertinent part, as a physical condition of a facility or the use thereof that constitutes an unreasonable risk to the health or safety of the public and that is proximately caused by the negligent act or omission of the public entity in “constructing or maintaining” such facility. C.R.S. § 24-10-103(1.3). Because the complete and permanent demolition of a building does not come within the plain meaning of the terms “constructing” or “maintaining” a facility, the court concluded that the dangerous condition of a public building exception does not apply.

Next, the court addressed whether petitioners’ coal tar-related claims fell within the waiver of immunity set forth in C.R.S. § 24-10-106(1)(f) for injuries resulting from the operation and maintenance of a public gas facility when, as here, petitioners’ cause of action accrued after the CGIA’s enactment but the operation and maintenance of the facility that caused the injury occurred before that enactment. Because petitioners have established that (1) the facility at issue was a public gas facility, (2) petitioners’ claimed injuries from the coal tar contamination resulted from the operation and maintenance of that facility, and (3) petitioners’ coal tar-related claims accrued after the CGIA’s enactment, the court concluded that under the plain language of C.R.S. § 24-10-106(1)(f), the city waived its immunity for these claims.

Accordingly, court affirmed the portion of the division’s judgment requiring the dismissal of petitioners’ asbestos-related claims but reversed the portion of the judgment requiring the dismissal of petitioners’ coal tar-related claims.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

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.

Colorado Supreme Court: Non-negligently Constructed and Maintained Playground Equipment Cannot be “Dangerous Condition” for CGIA Waiver Purposes

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in St. Vrain Valley School District RE-1J v. Loveland on Monday, May 22, 2017.

Governmental Immunity—Waiver of Governmental Immunity—Dangerous Condition.

In this case, the supreme court considered the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act’s “recreation-area waiver,” which deprives a public entity of immunity in an action for injuries resulting from a dangerous condition of a public facility located in a recreation area. Specifically, the court examined the meaning of “dangerous condition” under the recreation-area waiver. The court held that a non-negligently constructed and maintained piece of playground equipment cannot be a “dangerous condition” under the waiver. Given this holding, the facts respondents alleged cannot show that a “dangerous condition” existed in this case. The court therefore concluded that the recreation-area waiver did not apply and petitioner retained its immunity from suit. The court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded to that court to reinstate the trial court’s order.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: CGIA Does Not Apply to Claims by Metropolitan District Against Developers

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Tallman Gulch Metropolitan District v. Natureview Development, LLC on Thursday, May 18, 2017.

Colorado Governmental Immunity Act—Public Employee Immunity for Torts.

Richardson owned Natureview Development, LLC (Natureview) and platted and developed Tallman Gulch, a real estate development. In 2006, the Tallman Gulch Metropolitan District (the District) was formed to provide public improvements and services to its residents and taxpayers. Richardson was president of the District’s Board of Directors (Board). Tallman Gulch went into foreclosure, and despite being aware of the foreclosure proceedings, Richardson, acting as president of the District’s Board, signed off on the issuance of $4,214,000 in bonds to Natureview in exchange for the then-existing infrastructure improvements in Tallman Gulch. Ten days after the bonds were issued, the district court authorized the public trustee sale of Tallman Gulch, which was sold in 2011.

The District filed various claims against Natureview and Richardson, alleging it suffered an injury when it issued over $4 million in bonds to Natureview and Richardson, despite Tallman Gulch’s foreclosure status. The District argued that Richardson breached his fiduciary duty to the District as a Board member by approving issuance of bonds in a financially reckless manner and in bad faith, failing to disclose and consider the development’s financial and foreclosure status in making the bonds decision. Defendants moved to dismiss on various grounds. As relevant here, defendants argued that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the claims against Richardson under CRCP 12(b)(1), asserting that the claims were based on Richardson’s actions as an officer of the District and were thus barred by the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA). The court denied the motion to dismiss.

On appeal, defendants argued it was error to conclude the CGIA did not apply to the District’s claims against Richardson. Richardson argued that as a public employee he was immune under the CGIA with regard to the District’s tort claims against him. Here, the District, the public entity that employed Richardson, sued him for his malfeasance while in its employ. The plain language of the statute is unambiguous as to the immunity of the entity or employee when called upon to defend against tort claims, but it is silent as to suits brought by a public entity plaintiff. The CGIA clearly states that its purpose is to limit the liability of public entities in defending against tort claims, and thus to lessen the burden on taxpayers who provide funding for public entities. To prevent the District from recovering its loss by allowing Richardson to claim immunity as a public employee does not effectuate the purposes of the CGIA. The Court of Appeals concluded that the district court correctly concluded that the CGIA did not on its face apply to the District’s claims against Richardson.

The order was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: City Waived Immunity by Failing to Maintain Road

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Dennis v. City & County of Denver on Thursday, September 22, 2016.

Colorado Governmental Immunity Act—Deteriorated Roadway—Unreasonable Risk to Health or Safety of Public.

Heyboer sustained injuries as a passenger on a motorcycle that could not timely brake when a car unexpectedly turned left in front of it. Dennis, as conservator and guardian for Heyboer, brought this negligence and premises liability action against the City and County of Denver (City). The complaint alleged that (1) the City had a duty to maintain the roadway free from dangerous conditions that physically interfered with the movement of traffic, (2) it breached that duty by allowing the roadway to fall into disrepair, (3) it knew of the deteriorated state of the road from prior complaints, and (4) Heyboer’s injuries resulted from the City’s breach of its duty of care.

The City moved to dismiss under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(1), asserting immunity and denying the allegations. The district court conducted a hearing and granted the City’s motion.

On appeal, Heyboer argued that she satisfied her burden of proving an unreasonable risk to the health or safety of the public; she contended that the court erred in finding no evidence of an unreasonable risk and, by doing so, erred as a matter of law in refusing to find a waiver of immunity. Both the record and the court’s factual findings demonstrated that the City failed to maintain the road as required by C.R.S. § 24-10-103(2.5), thereby creating an unreasonable risk to the health or safety of the public. The court of appeals concluded that the district court clearly erred in its factual finding that the record contained no evidence of an unreasonable risk to the health and safety of the public. This also leads to the conclusion that it was error to find, as a matter of law, that there was no waiver of immunity under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act.

The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for reinstatement of the complaint.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Officer Entitled to Bring Interlocutory Appeal Regarding Whether Sovereign Immunity Applied

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Martinez v. Estate of Bleck on Monday, September 12, 2016.

Colorado Governmental Immunity Act—Interlocutory Appeal—Sovereign Immunity—Willful and Wanton Conduct.

Bleck was injured when Officer Jeffrey Martinez’s firearm  discharged during an attempt to subdue Bleck. Bleck filed a state law battery claim against Martinez, and Martinez filed a motion to dismiss, claiming immunity under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA). The trial court found that Bleck had adequately pleaded willful and wanton conduct by Martinez and thus denied Martinez’s motion. Martinez then filed an interlocutory appeal with the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals held that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the appeal because Martinez was only entitled to qualified immunity, which is not appealable on an interlocutory basis, not sovereign immunity, which is. The Supreme Court reversed and concluded that whether a public employee’s conduct is willful and wanton under the CGIA implicates sovereign immunity. Thus, the plain language of the CGIA affords Martinez a right to an interlocutory appeal. The Court further held that the trial court erred in (1) not deciding the issue of whether Martinez’s conduct was willful and wanton, and (2) using a negligence standard to define willful and wanton. Accordingly, the Court remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Colorado Governmental Immunity Act Does Not Apply to Prospective Injury

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Open Door Ministries v. Lipschuetz on Monday, May 23, 2016.

Colorado Governmental Immunity Act—Injury—Nature of Action.

The Supreme Court held that the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA), CRS §§ 24-10-101 to -120, does not bar claims for prospective relief from a future injury. Open Door Ministries (Open Door) had not suffered an injury by the time it filed its cross-claims against the City and County of Denver. Therefore, Open Door’s cross-claims—which sought prospective relief to prevent a future injury—were not subject to the CGIA. Open Door was not required to comply with the CGIA’s notice provision, and the trial court had jurisdiction over the cross-claims.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Late Filing Not Allowed Under Excusable Neglect Because Claim Not Meritorious

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Sebastian v. Douglas County on Monday, February 29, 2016.

Hearing and Determination—Pleading—Civil Procedure.

In his action under 42 USC § 1983, plaintiff alleged that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when he was bitten by a K-9 police dog. His claim was dismissed after he failed to respond to a motion to dismiss. Thereafter, he filed a motion to set aside the judgment under CRCP 60(b)(1), asserting that his failure to respond was caused by excusable neglect. The trial court denied the Rule 60(b)(1) motion, and the court of appeals affirmed, concluding that plaintiff failed to demonstrate that he had alleged a meritorious claim or defense, the second factor to be considered under Rule 60(b)(1). The court of appeals reasoned that plaintiff failed to allege an intentional seizure by the government as required under Brower v. County of Inyo, 489 U.S. 593, 596 (1989). More specifically, the court of appeals reasoned that an intentional seizure occurs when an officer releases a K-9 into a particular “space” and the plaintiff is bitten within that space.

The Supreme Court affirmed, but on narrower grounds. The Court rejected the court’s “space” analysis and instead found that the allegation regarding an intentional seizure in plaintiff’s complaint amounts to a legal conclusion, which is insufficient to allege a meritorious claim under Rule 60(b)(1).

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

Colorado Court of Appeals: Zip Line at Public School Inherently Dangerous So CGIA Does Not Apply

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Loveland v. St. Vrain Valley School District RE-1J on Thursday, September 24, 2015.

Governmental Immunity—Recreation Area Waiver.

In 2008, 9-year-old Alexa Rae Loveland was playing in her public elementary school’s playground. While using a zip line, she fell and fractured her wrist and right forearm. Alexa and her parents filed a tort action against the school’s principal and St. Vrain Valley School District RE-1J (District).

The District moved to dismiss under CRCP 12(b)(1), asserting lack of subject matter jurisdiction because public school districts and their employees are immune from tort liability under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA). The Lovelands argued immunity was waived under CRS§ 24-10-106(1)(e) because the injury arose from a “dangerous condition” of a “public facility located in any park or recreation area maintained by a public entity.” The trial court granted the District’s motion, finding that playground equipment is not a public facility.

On interlocutory appeal, a division of the Court of the Appeals reversed, holding that the zip line constituted a public facility located in a recreation area. The Supreme Court granted certiorariand held that “an individual zip line apparatus on a public playground does not qualify as a ‘public facility’ under the recreation area waiver when that apparatus is divorced from the rest of the playground.” Because the trial court made no findings of fact regarding “the remaining requirements of the recreation area waiver,” however, the Supreme Court remanded the case. On remand, the District again moved to dismiss and the trial court again granted the motion.

On this second appeal, the Lovelands argued that it was error for the trial court to conclude they had not satisfied the requirement that the injury was a result of a dangerous condition that was a result of the physical condition of the public facility. The Court of Appeals agreed. The zip line was inherently dangerous and its mere presence was the physical condition of the playground, the use of which created the dangerous condition that caused Alexa’s injuries.

The trial court also found that the Lovelands had not shown that the particular zip line constituted an unreasonable risk to public health or safety. The Court held there was not enough evidence presented on this issue and, thus, it was error for the trial court to hold this was not shown as a matter of law. A hearing is therefore necessary to make factual findings on this issue.

The Court further held that the trial court properly dismissed the claims against the principal because there was no allegation that she was involved in the decision to install the zip line. Rather, the allegations went to claims of negligent supervision, which are barred by the CGIA. Because an award of attorney fees is mandatory when a trial court dismisses an action under CRCP 12(b), the principal is therefore entitled to her reasonable attorney fees on appeal as they relate to the claims against her. The judgment was affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the case was remanded with directions.

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