Court Opinions: Colorado Supreme Court Opinions for May 16

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

French v. Centura Health

The Colorado Supreme Court concluded a woman shouldn’t be on the hook for a six-figure hospital bill because her agreement with the health care facility was ambiguous about cost.

Lisa French went to St. Anthony North Health Campus for back surgery in 2014. Before the operation, the hospital gave French an estimate for about $1,300 after insurance. But after the surgery, French got a hospital bill for more than $229,000. According to the hospital, the discrepancy happened because hospital staff initially thought French was in network with the hospital, which turned out to be incorrect.

French didn’t pay and the hospital sued. A jury found French had breached a hospital services agreement she signed requiring her to pay “all charges of the Hospital.” The hospital argued “all charges” referred to the rates in its chargemaster, a list of “sticker prices” for hospital services. But the court disagreed, finding “all charges” was ambiguous, and instructed the jury to interpret the term. The jury concluded the phrase meant the “reasonable value of the goods and services” and found French owed the hospital about $766.

A division of the Court of Appeals reversed, agreeing with the hospital that most jurisdictions have interpreted contracts like the one French signed as unambiguously incorporating a hospital’s chargemaster rates.

However, the Colorado Supreme Court disagreed. French had no knowledge of the chargemaster, which wasn’t referenced in the agreement she signed, and the hospital didn’t share it with her, the court said. “Accordingly, the [agreement] left its price term open, and therefore, the jury appropriately determined that term,” states the unanimous opinion written by Justice Richard Gabriel.

The high court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Gomez v. JP Trucking

Truck drivers Leonel Gomez, Francisco Gonzalez, Ebarardo Sanchez and Nathan Abbott mostly delivered materials to construction sites within the state of Colorado. But Abbott and Gonzalez had to cross state lines on one occasion. They often worked more than 40 hours and sued their employer, JP Trucking, for failure to pay overtime.

JP Trucking argued the workers were exempt from overtime pay under the Colorado Minimum Wage Order’s exemption for “interstate drivers” and the Motor Carrier Act exemption under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which says federal overtime requirements don’t apply to drivers whose duties involve transporting goods in interstate commerce.

The trial court ruled in the truckers’ favor. But the Colorado Court of Appeals concluded the workers were exempt from overtime pay under the MCA. In a later proceeding, the Court of Appeals found that the CMWO’s interstate driver exemption mirrors that of the MCA, which doesn’t require drivers to cross state lines. The Court of Appeals reversed the judgment in favor of JP Trucking, declining to follow another division’s 2018 holding in Brunson v. Colorado Cab Company.

The Colorado Supreme Court concluded that Gomez and Sanchez, whose work never took them over state lines, are not interstate drivers and were not exempt from overtime pay under state wage-and-hour law. However, the high court found Gonzalez and Abbott fell under the CMWO’s minimum wage exemption, even though they only crossed state lines once.

The fact that these two drivers crossed state lines on only one occasion is academic,” states the opinion written by Justice Carlos Samour. “Contrary to the truck drivers’ contention, there is no basis to hold that the term ‘interstate drivers’ applies only if a driver’s work takes him across state lines predominantly.”

The Supreme Court remanded the case for further proceedings but warned that recent changes in state regulations redefined the meaning of “interstate drivers,” so the court’s holding in JP Trucking only applies to earlier versions of state minimum wage rules.

Farmers Reservoir & Irrigation Company v. Arapahoe County Water and Wastewater Authority

In this water rights case, the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed a water court’s decree confirming the Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Company’s absolute and conditional rights to use runoff, drainage waste, seepage and other water accruing to the Beebe Seep Canal in Weld County. The decree confirmed FRICO’s rights but imposed some restrictions and requirements related to its use and storage of seep water.

FRICO appealed and asked for a reversal of the limitations and conditions imposed by the water court. The company argued the terms violate its constitutional right to appropriate unappropriated water, are inconsistent with statutory requirements and fall outside the water court’s jurisdiction.

Opposing parties Arapahoe County Water and Wastewater Authority, East Cherry Creek Valley Water and Sanitation District and United Water and Sanitation District contended the water court was correct to limit FRICO’s ability to appropriate seepage and the limitations are necessary to prevent harm to other water users. They also argued on cross-appeal that FRICO engaged in diversion practices that were at odds with the prior appropriation system, and these practices should not be the basis for a water right decree.

The Supreme Court concluded the water court didn’t err in awarding the water rights the opposing parties objected to. It also found the limitations the water court placed on FRICO’s water rights didn’t violate its constitutional or statutory right to appropriate unappropriated water for beneficial use. The high court affirmed the water court’s amended decree.

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