Court Opinions: Colorado Court of Appeals Opinions for April 21

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

People v. Bagwell

In this criminal case, the Colorado Court of Appeals held that a victim’s alleged consent to be killed cannot be an affirmative defense in a murder case, even if the act was the “mercy killing” of a terminally ill person.

Bruce Bagwell shot and killed his wife of 36 years, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He claims the shooting was a “mercy killing” done at her request. She had lost 40 pounds and her physical and cognitive abilities were deteriorating. Her doctor estimated she had only weeks or months to live and a hospice nurse had started visiting the Bagwells’ home to care for her.

Bagwell was charged with first-degree murder. He moved to suppress statements he made to detectives where he admitted killing his wife and moved to assert his wife’s consent to be killed as an affirmative defense. The trial court denied the motion to suppress and precluded Bagwell from asserting his wife’s consent as a defense. Bagwell was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Bagwell appealed, challenging the court’s rulings on the motions to suppress and to assert consent as an affirmative defense. Under state statute, a victim’s consent may be an affirmative defense if the consent precludes the infliction of the type of harm the law seeks to prevent. If the offense causes or threatens bodily injury, the defense is available only if the bodily injury is “not serious.”

Bagwell argued the statute permits the defense of consent to first-degree murder when a terminally ill victim urges a loved one to end their suffering. The defense is available, according to Bagwell, because laws prohibiting murder seek to prevent malicious killings, not mercy killings.

However, the division concluded the defense is not available, pointing to the consent statute’s requirement that bodily harm resulting from the offense can’t be serious. While the consent statute doesn’t define “serious” injury, the court said, an injury resulting in death is serious by any definition.

The division noted that a separate statute, the Colorado End-of-Life Options Act, allows terminally ill people to end their lives with medication prescribed by their doctors and spells out eligibility requirements and procedures for receiving the drugs. The act states that it doesn’t allow any person, physician or otherwise, to directly end someone else’s life through “lethal injection, mercy killing, or euthanasia.” The act “explicitly forecloses Bagwell’s interpretation that the consent statute creates, in effect, its own ‘mercy killing’ exception,” the division’s opinion states.

The division also concluded the trial court didn’t violate Bagwell’s constitutional rights by denying his motion to suppress his statements to detectives.

Gregory v. Safeco Insurance Company of America

The Colorado Court of Appeals considered whether to extend the state’s notice-prejudice rule to first-party claims under a homeowners’ insurance policy. It ultimately declined to do so but suggested the Colorado Supreme Court could clear up uncertainty over the issue.

Karyn Gregory had a Safeco homeowners’ insurance policy that covered specified direct physical damage to her home that “occurs during the policy period,” which ran from Feb. 15, 2017 to Feb. 15, 2018.

A hailstorm damaged Gregory’s roof in May 2017, but she didn’t notify Safeco or file a claim until about a year and a half later when a contractor told her about the hail damage. Safeco denied her claim as untimely, citing the delay in filing and a notice provision in her policy that required her to notify the insurer of hail-related losses within 365 days of the damage.

Gregory sued for breach of contract, bad-faith breach of an insurance policy and for unreasonably delaying and denying payment.

Gregory and Safeco filed motions addressing whether Colorado’s notice-prejudice rule applies, which would require Safeco to demonstrate it was prejudiced by the late notice before denying her benefits, and whether the policy’s one-year notice provision is invalid under a section of Colorado homeowners’ insurance law that limits an insurer’s ability to shorten the statute of limitations for policyholders to file lawsuits.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Safeco, finding the notice requirement didn’t contravene the statute of limitations provision and Gregory’s claim was untimely. Gregory appealed.

A division of the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s judgment. But the division noted that the Colorado Supreme Court had yet to extend the notice-prejudice rule to first-party claims under homeowners’ policies and there “appears to be uncertainty” in how federal courts apply the state law.

“Gregory asks us to resolve this uncertainty. We conclude that only the supreme court may decide whether to replace the traditional rule with the notice-prejudice rule for first party claims under homeowners’ insurance policies,” the division stated. “We therefore affirm the judgment of dismissal, but we note that this case may present an opportunity for our supreme court to provide clarity on this question.”

Adoption of E.A.T.

In this family law case, the Colorado Court of Appeals addressed parenting disputes involving a child, a stepfather seeking to adopt the child and another man who played a paternal role in the child’s life.

E.A.T. was born in 2015. Two years later, his mother married J.D.L., who is not the child’s biological father but was a “psychological parent” — someone who develops a parental relationship through daily interaction, companionship and caring for the child. J.D.L. and the mother separated and she began living with another man, R.M.C.

J.D.L. filed for divorce in 2019. Before the written decree and permanent orders were entered in the divorce case, R.M.C. petitioned for stepparent adoption of the child, which the mother and biological father consented to. J.D.L. wasn’t notified of the adoption petition.

Three weeks later, the domestic relations court entered the written decree and permanent orders. The court found that J.D.L. was the child’s psychological parent and he was granted parenting time.

Soon after, the adoption court entered an adoption decree and a supplemental order finding it had jurisdiction and there was no “scientific or biological” basis for J.D.L. to be the child’s psychological parent. The adoption court said the mother and adoptive father R.M.C. get to make parenting and visitation decisions and J.D.L wouldn’t be allowed further contact or parenting time.

A month later, the domestic relations court recognized an adoption decree had been entered and that J.D.L. was prohibited from further contact under the competing order. The domestic relations court concluded it had original and continuing jurisdiction concerning parental responsibilities and denied modifications to the parenting schedule ordered in the divorce case.

J.D.L. filed motions to intervene in the adoption case and set aside the adoption decree. The adoption court denied the motions, finding J.D.L. wasn’t entitled to notice of the adoption proceeding and lacked standing to challenge the adoption decree because he was not a natural parent. The court also found that because the domestic relations court had entered an order regarding J.D.L.’s parenting time, he failed to show the stepparent adoption would impede his visitation interests. Additionally, the adoption court vacated its supplemental order because the domestic relations court had asserted original and continuing jurisdiction and affirmed that J.D.L’s disputes should be resolved there.

J.D.L. then filed a motion with the adoption court to access the adoption case file and register of actions, which he claimed he needed to appeal the motions the adoption court denied. The adoption court denied the motion, finding J.D.L. doesn’t fall within the class of people allowed to access confidential adoption records.

In his appeal, adoptive father R.M.C. argues the adoption court incorrectly vacated the supplemental order based on the erroneous conclusion that the domestic relations court has continuing jurisdiction regarding J.D.L.’s parenting time. J.D.L. cross-appealed, contending the court erroneously denied his request to intervene in the adoption action and set aside the adoption decree. He also challenged the order denying him access to the adoption files.

The Colorado Court of Appeals held in a matter of first impression that an adoption decree doesn’t void a prior allocation of parental responsibilities to a non-parent. The court that issued the prior order retains jurisdiction related to the allocation of parental responsibilities, the Court of Appeals concluded. The court also found that as a non-parent, J.D.L. is not entitled to be notified of or participate in the adoption proceeding.

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