Court Opinions: Colorado Court of Appeals Opinions for Aug. 4

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

In re Estate of Chavez

The Colorado Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed in part, and reversed in part, a case dealing with treble damages. Treble damages are a type of damage where a statute lets a court triple the amount of actual damages in order to calculate a plaintiff’s compensation. 

This probate matter involved Gilbert Chavez who appealed a breach of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment and civil theft order after a jury trial that was entered in favor of Teresa Chavez-Krumland, who is the conservator of Marie Chavez and the personal representative of Marie Chavez’s estate. Marie Chavez died during the course of the appeal.

The estate also cross-appealed the court’s ruling that denied treble damages on a civil theft claim. 

The appeals court wrote that the case presents an issue of first impression — whether a trial court can offset a defendant’s repayment against a jury’s award of damages before determining treble damages.

The appeals court concluded it cannot and that a court should first treble the jury’s damages that were awarded for civil theft and then deduct the amount already repaid. The civil theft judgment was reversed and remanded for the trial court to recalculate damages. The judgment was affirmed in all other aspects.

Marie Chavez had been living on her ranch by herself, but eventually gave one of her children, Gilbert Chavez and his wife, the ranch via a quitclaim deed. Gilbert Chavez was also given power of attorney for her bank account. She ended up living in a rehabilitation and retirement facility. 

In 2017, Chavez-Krumland learned about the deed transfer and confronted Gilbert Chavez who said he was following Marie Chavez’s wishes. Marie Chavez said she asked to return to the ranch but Gilbert Chavez refused. Marie Chavez told her attorney she wanted the ranch back and didn’t expect it to be permanent.

In 2018, Chavez-Krumland was designated the sole durable power of attorney and medical durable power of attorney. Chavez-Krumland then discovered that from December 2016 to March 2018, Gilbert Chavez transferred about $59,000 from Marie Chavez’s account into his commercial bank account. Chavez-Krumland demanded the return of that money and expenses associated with the ranch which were transferred from Marie Chavez’s bank into Gilbert Chavez’s bank account. Gilbert Chavez complied, paying nearly $71,000. 

The estate then filed a petition to void the quitclaim deed that transferred the ranch from Marie Chavez to Gilbert Chavez. That estate also brought claims against Gilbert Chavez for breach of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment and civil theft that was connected to the transfer of the ranch and money transfers from Marie Chavez’s bank account. 

A jury returned verdicts in the estate’s favor for breach of fiduciary duty and unjust enrichment claims. The jury also returned a verdict in the estate’s favor on the civil theft claim, but only on the money transferred out of the account. The jury found Gilbert Chavez received $775,000 for breaching his fiduciary duty while Marie Chavez lost $775,000 in property or assets as a result of the breach. The jury also found Gilbert Chavez was unjustly enriched $845,901.17 which is the combined value of the ranch and the money transferred out of the bank account. The jury found Marie Chavez lost $70,901.17 as the result of civil theft.

The jury did return a verdict in Gilbert Chavez’s favor on the promissory estoppel claim and declined to rescind the quitclaim deed. After the trial, the court found Marie Chavez had intended to give the ranch to Gilbert Chavez by signing the deed and Gilbert Chavez did not act in a manner overcoming her will. 

The court then offset the $70,901.17 Gilbert Chavez had repaid the estate before the trial from the jury’s damages for the civil theft. Thus that damages order ended up being zero dollars and the court denied treble damages. 

Gilbert Chavez made multiple arguments on appeal which were rejected. The estate also appealed and contended the trial court erred by deducting the returned funds from the jury’s damages award before trebling the damages. The appeals court agreed with the estate on that matter. 

The appeals court cited multiple items including the federal case law interpreting Section 4 of the Clayton Act where triple the amount of damages can be obtained by an antitrust violation, writing federal courts have consistently held district courts should first treble the amount of the jury’s verdict and subtract the amount already paid in the settlement.

Thus, the appeals court concluded the lower court erred by deducting the $70,901.17 that was repaid to the estate from the jury’s damages verdict before trebling actual damages. The trial court should first treble the actual damages and then subtract $70,901.17. The appeals court thus reversed the trial court order on the civil theft claim in part and remanded the court to award the estate $212,703.51 in treble damages on the claim. The judgment was otherwise affirmed.

Estate of Davies

The court of appeals unanimously reversed and remanded a case involving a will.

In this case, a district court invalidated the will of Thomas Davies, who died under a conservatorship. The court concluded Davies’ conservator, Phillip Wong, made the will without complying with Colorado Revised Statute 15-14-411(1)(g). That section says a conservator can make, amend or revoke someone’s will only after getting a court’s approval and giving notice to interested parties.

On appeal, Wong and the devisees under the will, contend that section doesn’t apply here, because even though Wong drafted the will, Davies was still the one that executed it. That means Davies actually made the will, not Wong.

The appeals court agreed with Wong. In this case, Davies executed the will in compliance with 15-11-502 which means 15-14-411(1)(g) didn’t apply. The appeals court concluded that a protected person can make a will in compliance with 15-11-502 without prior court authorization. 

The court further concluded that Davies’ will was in writing, signed by Davies in the presence of a notary and two witnesses. With all of that, Davies made the will in compliance with 15-11-502.

Galef v. University of Colorado

The court of appeals unanimously reversed and remanded a case involving a slip-and-fall.

Jordan Galef is appealing a trial court’s dismissal of his complaint against the University of Colorado. The lower court ruled CU had not waived its immunity concerning Galef’s Premises Liability Act claim under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act. The appeals court reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Galef contends he was walking down a staircase that was recently mopped in his dormitory hall when he slipped and fell. The fall led to him dislocating his shoulder and he needed surgery. Galef alleges the black coloring of the flooring made it tough to see the stairs were wet and the university did not display a wet floor sign or any other warning. 

The university argued it had not waived its CGIA immunity for Galef’s claims. The court ruled that the wet black stairs did not amount to a dangerous condition within the terms of the CGIA. As for the wet floor sign, the lower court contended that doesn’t lead to a public entity waiving its immunity, without any other negligent act, which means it cannot constitute a dangerous condition under the CGIA. The lower court added Galef failed to demonstrate the “difficult-to-detect wetness” of the black flooring. 

The lower court’s undisputed facts found Galef injured himself falling down some recently mopped steps which he could not see were wet because of the black coloring, there wasn’t a wet floor sign displayed toward individuals approaching the stairs from his location and that mopping the stairs are part of the university’s maintenance plan.

The appeals court agreed with Galef. It wrote that based on the unchallenged allegations in Galef’s complaint, his submissions in court and reasonable inferences from the trial court’s undisputed factual findings, the university’s immunity was waived. 

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