April 15, 2021 Court Opinions – Colorado Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Compos v. People

Following a domestic dispute at his ex-girlfriend’s home in violation of protective orders, Vincent Compos was convicted of criminal impersonation and the lesser-included offense of false reporting. He appealed the conviction, saying police violated his Miranda rights by asking for his name following his arrest after he gave a verbal threat of gun violence while the officers were responding to his ex-girlfriend’s 911 call.

The Colorado Supreme Court considered whether police had violated Compos’ Miranda rights, and the court was tasked with deciding whether a division of the Colorado Court of Appeals erred in establishing a “new crime exception” to Miranda v. Arizona and applying it here.

The Supreme Court concluded that police asking for Compos’ name amounted to custodial interrogation, but Compos’ response was admissible at trial because the question was akin to the type of routine booking question that has been deemed acceptable according to Miranda’s reach. The court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals on other grounds, and in light of its determination, didn’t rule on the portion of the judgment establishing a new crime exception to Miranda.

Delta Air Lines, Inc. v. Scholle

In this case, and its companion case, Gill v. Waltz, the Colorado Supreme Court considered the consequences for an injured employee’s claims against a third-party tortfeasor when the employee’s workers’ compensation insurer settles its subrogation claim with that tortfeasor.

After William Scholle, an employee of United Airlines, was injured in a rear-end collision by a Delta Air Lines employee during work activities, United paid for his medical bills and missed income in accordance with workers’ compensation laws in Colorado.

United later sued Delta and the Delta employee to recover some of the money awarded to Scholle. Delta eventually settled United’s subrogation claim, and the trial court dismissed United’s case. Scholle’s claims against the Delta employee were later dismissed as well, leaving only Scholle and Delta as parties. Delta admitted liability for the accident, and the case went to trial on damages. Scholle was originally awarded $1.5 million in damages, but that ruling was later overturned. Scholle was later awarded nothing because of Delta’s settlement with United. Scholle appealed, and a division of the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in his favor on his right to pursue damages for medical expenses. Delta appealed that ruling.

The Supreme Court concluded that when a workers’ compensation insurer settles its subrogation claim for reimbursement of medical expenses with a third-party tortfeasor, the injured employee’s claim for past medical expenses is extinguished completely. Because the injured employee doesn’t need to present evidence of either billed or paid medical expenses in the absence of a viable claim for such expenses, the collateral source rule wasn’t implicated under these circumstances. The Supreme Court found that the Court of Appeals erred in remanding for a new trial on medical expenses based on a perceived misapplication of that rule. The court reversed.

Gill v. Waltz

In December 2015, Joseph Gill was injured in an on-the-job car accident when he was struck by a truck owned by Swift Transportation Company and driven by Christopher Waltz. As a result of the injuries he suffered in the accident, Gill obtained workers’ compensation benefits through Pinnacol Assurance to cover his medical expenses. Gill’s medical providers produced bills totaling more than $600,000.

However, because Colorado’s workers’ compensation scheme caps the amount medical providers can charge, Pinnacol satisfied all of Gill’s past medical expenses for significantly less. Pinnacol then pursued and ultimately settled its subrogation claim with Swift. Gill and his wife then sued Swift and Waltz for damages and the case was removed from state court to the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.

Swift sought partial summary judgment, relying on the decision in Lebsack v. Rios, in which the court concluded an injured employee lacked standing to pursue damages for services covered by workers’ compensation after the insurer had settled its subrogated claims with the third-party tortfeasor.

While the federal district court was considering Swift’s motion, the Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Scholle v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., noted above, in which the court disagreed with the Lebsack ruling and, instead, determined a plaintiff-employee could seek damages for medical services covered by workers’ compensation insurance if the billed amounts were higher than the paid amounts, even after the insurer had settled its subrogation claim. The Scholle division concluded if a plaintiff-employee did seek such damages, the collateral source rule would bar admission of any evidence of the amount that the insurance covered.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled a settlement between a workers’ compensation insurer and a third-party tortfeasor for all past medical expenses paid as a result of an on-the-job injury extinguishes the plaintiff-employee’s claim to recover damages for those past medical expenses from the third-party tortfeasor.

While Gill may still pursue his claims for any noneconomic and economic damages not covered by his workers’ compensation insurer, he no longer has any claim to recover economic damages based on services paid for by workers’ compensation. There’s no reason to present evidence of either the amounts billed or the amounts paid for those services, and the collateral source rule wasn’t implicated in this case.

People v. Murphy

In this appeal, the Colorado Supreme Court reviewed the Colorado Court of Appeals’ decision in People v. Murphy, in which the division determined the trial court improperly admitted lay opinion testimony and reversed Justine Murphy’s convictions for distributing methamphetamine and contributing to the delinquency of a minor and remanded the case for a new trial.

The Supreme Court considered whether the trial court properly admitted a police officer’s testimony about the conclusions he drew from his observations of a witness’ body language as lay opinion. The Supreme Court concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in ruling the testimony constituted a lay opinion. The court also concluded the officer didn’t improperly comment on the credibility of another witness. The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded.

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