Court Opinions- Oct 12, 2020

People v. Martinez

A division of the Colorado Court of Appeals considered whether victim impact evidence is admissible during the guilt/innocence phase of a sexual assault trial. 

The division held the trial court erred by admitting victim impact evidence because the evidence did not make any material fact or element of the offense more or less probable and was thus inadmissible. The evidence had the potential to improperly shift the jury’s focus from deciding whether Joseph Martinez committed the crime to whether a guilty verdict would assuage the trauma of A.R., the victim.

Under the circumstances of this case, the court ruled the admission of the victim impact evidence constituted harmless error. The guilty verdict rested on the jury’s implicit but necessary finding that Martinez lacked credibility in claiming that A.R., who alleged she had been too intoxicated to consent, had actually consented to sex. Thus, the admission of the victim impact evidence did not affect Martinez’s substantial rights and likely did not contribute to his conviction.

The division rejected Martinez’s other arguments and affirmed his judgment of conviction of sexual assault on a victim incapable of appraising the nature of her conduct.

People v. Burgandine

Following an incident in which James Burgandine repeatedly texted and telephoned threats against his girlfriend and others for seven hours, a jury found him guilty of harassment and credible threat stalking.

Burgandine challenged his stalking conviction under section 18-3-602(1)(a), C.R.S. 2019, contending that the term “contacts” cannot reasonably be interpreted to include general communications, like phone calls and texts, because a different section of the stalking statute addresses “any form of communication.”

Applying the plain language of “contacts,” a division of the Colorado Court of Appeals concluded the term covers communications such as phone calls and text messages. The division also declined Burgandine’s request to interpret the term “contacts” narrowly to avoid redundancy. Because the evidence showed Burgandine repeatedly made threatening text messages and phone calls to the victim, the division affirmed the stalking conviction.

People v. Rice

Brian Rice in 2018 pled guilty to one count of first-degree aggravated motor vehicle theft and display of unlawful license plates. He was also charged with aggravating factors that included retaining possession of the vehicle for more than twenty-four hours and causing $500 or more in property damage. Those additional charges were dismissed as part of Rice’s plea agreement and the district court entered a restitution order in the amount of $3,056.82 on Nov. 14, 2018, 99 days after Rice’s sentence.

He challenged the district court’s order of restitution on the grounds that it was entered more than 91 days after his conviction without a showing of good cause and because he did not proximately cause the harm to the victim’s vehicle. 

A division of the Colorado Court of Appeals adopted the reasoning from People v. Weeks, which determined the district court must order a specific amount of restitution within 91 days of sentencing. The division departed from Weeks by holding a district court may impose restitution after that time based on an implied finding of good cause supported by the record. The division affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded the case with instructions to modify the amount of restitution awarded.

Suydam v. LFI Fort Pierce

Gary Suydam was severely injured when he was struck by two cars while riding his bicycle through an intersection. The collisions rendered him a quadriplegic and, as a result, he requires help with nearly every aspect of daily living. The driver of the first car was Chelsea Brewer, an employee of LFI Fort Pierce, Inc. The driver of the second car was Stephen Tecmire.

Suydam and his wife, Lisa Linch-Suydam, filed a lawsuit against Brewer, LFI, Tecmire and other defendants. In their complaint, the Suydams alleged that LFI was liable for any damages awardable against Brewer because she was performing job duties for LFI at the time of the accident. The Suydams sought damages for economic loss, physical impairment or disfigurement and loss of consortium. They obtained a default ruling against Tecmire after he failed to respond to their complaint. 

At the conclusion of a six-day trial, a jury awarded the Suydams more than $54 million in damages, including more than $32 million in damages for physical impairment or disfigurement. The jury determined that Brewer and LFI were responsible for ninety percent, and Tecmire was responsible for ten percent of the Suydams’ damages. 

On appeal, LFI challenged the verdict and the damage award on three grounds. First, LFI asserted that the trial court erred by failing to give the jury a separate instruction on the “going-and-coming” rule, which addresses when an employer is liable for the actions of an employee who is traveling between work and home or another personal destination. 

A division of the Colorado Court of Appeals decided that LFI was not entitled to an instruction on the going-and-coming rule because the scope of work instruction the court gave the jury was supported by the evidence presented at trial, while LFI’s proffered instructions were not. The evidence showed that, at the time of the incident, Brewer was engaged in an act or performing a duty under the express or implied direction of LFI. Moreover, Brewer never testified that she was driving home or to another personal destination when her vehicle collided with Suydam.

Second, LFI argued the trial court erred by changing Tecmire’s status from a defaulted defendant to a nonparty on the second day of trial, and that the error is grounds for a new trial. The division disagreed because the trial court’s determination regarding Tecmire’s status did not prejudice LFI.

Third, LFI challenged the jury’s damage award on two grounds. LFI contended the Suydams’ counsel impermissibly argued the jury should calculate damages for physical impairment or disfigurement on a per diem basis.

LFI also contended the damage award must be set aside because Colorado law does not draw a meaningful distinction between those noneconomic damages that are subject to a statutory cap and noneconomic damages for physical impairment or disfigurement, which are not capped. The division did not need to address these arguments, however, because LFI did not preserve them.

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