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Guarantee Trust Life Insurance Co. v. The Estate of Casper

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

May 29, 2018

Guarantee Trust Life Insurance Company, an Illinois corporation, Petitioner
v.
The Estate of Michael Dean Casper, by and through Nick Casper, personal representative. Respondent

          Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 14CA2423

          Attorneys for Petitioner: Hall & Evans, L.L.C. Kevin E. O'Brien Alan Epstein Malcolm S. Mead Denver, Colorado

          Attorneys for Respondent: Levin Sitcoff PC Bradley A. Levin Nelson A. Waneka Denver, Colorado

          Keating Wagner Polidori Free PC Zachary C. Warzel Denver, Colorado

          Attorneys for Amicus Curiae Colorado Trial Lawyers Association The Gold Law Firm, LLC Michael J. Rosenberg Greenwood Village, Colorado

          OPINION

          RICE CHIEF JUSTICE

          ¶1 In this case, we consider the operation of section 13-20-101, C.R.S. (2017), Colorado's survival statute, and section 10-3-1116(1), C.R.S. (2017), a statutory cause of action for the unreasonable delay or denial of insurance benefits. We also consider the scope of the trial court's authority to enter a final judgment nunc pro tunc. The original plaintiff, Michael Dean Casper, now deceased, received a favorable jury verdict awarding damages for breach of contract, bad-faith breach of insurance contract, and unreasonable delay or denial of insurance benefits under section 10-3-1116(1). The jury also awarded Casper substantial punitive damages. Nine days after the jury returned its verdict-but before the trial court reduced that verdict to a written and signed judgment-Casper died. Consequently, the defendant, Guarantee Trust Life Insurance Company ("GTL"), moved to substantially reduce the verdict, arguing that the survival statute barred certain damages. The trial court denied the motion, and the court of appeals affirmed. We granted GTL's petition to review the court of appeals' decision.[1]We now conclude that the survival statute does not limit the jury's verdict in favor of Casper. We also conclude that an award of attorney fees and costs under section 10-3- 1116(1) is a component of the "actual damages" of a successful claim under that section. Finally, we conclude that although the survival statute does not limit the damages awarded by the jury, the trial court abused its discretion by entering a final judgment on October 30, 2014, nunc pro tunc to July 15, 2014. Therefore, we affirm the court of appeals' decision in part and reverse in part.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶2 Casper sued GTL alleging breach of contract, bad-faith breach of an insurance contract, and statutory unreasonable delay or denial of insurance benefits under section 10-3-1116(1). On July 15, 2014, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Casper on each claim; in addition to compensatory damages, it awarded him substantial punitive and non-economic damages. The same day it received the verdict, the trial court recognized that Casper, who was suffering from cancer, was in poor health and immediately made an oral order indicating the court's intent that the verdict become a judgment. Specifically, the trial court stated, "[T]he verdict is received by the court and the clerk of the court is instructed to enter the verdict in the court registry . . . . I'm entering judgment." Nine days later-before the oral order of the court had been entered as a written and signed order as required by C.R.C.P. 58-Casper died. Casper's Estate was then substituted as the plaintiff in place of Casper. On October 30, 2014, the trial court entered a signed and written judgment in favor of Casper's Estate for nearly two million dollars; it dated this written judgment nunc pro tunc to July 15, 2014, the date the jury returned the verdict in favor of Casper.

          ¶3 After Casper's death, GTL filed a motion to amend the judgment and asked the court to exclude attorney fees and costs in its calculation of "actual damages" and also argued that the survival statute required a severe reduction in the award by the jury. The trial court disagreed and GTL appealed. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's decisions. Now, GTL asks us to reverse the court of appeals and hold that Casper's Estate is entitled only to $50, 000 in damages under the breach-of-contract claim. GTL also reiterates its argument that the trial court erred by including the award of attorney fees granted under section 10-3-1116(1) in its calculation of punitive damages and that the trial court erred by entering final judgment nunc pro tunc to the date of verdict.

         II. Standard of Review

         ¶4 This case presents several questions of statutory interpretation, which we review de novo. Goodman v. Heritage Builders, Inc., 2017 CO 13, ¶ 5, 390 P.3d 398, 401. And we review the trial court's entry of final judgment nunc pro tunc for an abuse of discretion. See Perdew v. Perdew, 64 P.2d 602, 604 (Colo. 1936) ("Application for . . . a judgment [nunc pro tunc] is addressed to the sound discretion of the court.").

         III. Analysis

         ¶5 We begin by considering the survival statute itself. Next, we measure each claim for relief brought by Casper against that statute and conclude that the survival statute, which was enacted to blunt the common law rule on abatement, does not bar any of Casper's original claims for relief, nor does it require any limitations on damages. We then consider the award of attorney fees and court costs available pursuant to section 10-3-1116(1) and determine that such an award constitutes "actual damages" within the meaning of section 13-21-102(1)(a), C.R.S. (2017), the punitive damages statute. Finally, we consider the trial court's decision to enter final judgment on October 30, 2014, nunc pro tunc to July 15, 2014, the date the jury returned its verdict. We conclude that, because an award of attorney fees and court costs under section 10-3-1116(1) is considered actual damages, and those actual damages were not fixed by the trial court by July 15, 2014, the trial court could not have entered final judgment nunc pro tunc to that date.

         A. The Survival Statute

         ¶6 In considering the operation of the survival statute, we begin, as we must, with the text of the statute itself. Goodman, ¶ 7, 390 P.3d at 401. The survival statute provides that:

All causes of action, except actions for slander or libel, shall survive and may be brought or continued notwithstanding the death of the person in favor of or against whom such action has accrued, but punitive damages shall not be awarded nor penalties adjudged after the death of the person against whom such punitive damages or penalties are claimed; and, in tort actions based upon personal injury, the damages recoverable after the death of the person in whose favor such action has accrued shall be limited to loss of earnings and expenses sustained or incurred ...

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