Neither the city of Grand Junction nor any other governmental entity in the state is protected from lawsuits under the Colorado Government Immunity Act if an agent they hire acts negligently when it comes to the operation or maintenance of a public facility, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
In a precedent-setting decision, a three-judge panel of the court said a government's immunity is effectively waived under the act regardless of whether it was the government itself or an agent hired by a governmental entity that was negligent.
As a result, a negligence lawsuit against the city and the private contractors it hired must go back to district court for trial, the judges ruled. Colorado Mesa University students Roberto Lopez, Jordan Pierson and Kolby Gimmeson filed the lawsuit after they were injured in a dramatic house explosion in 2013.
"Because governmental immunity from suit derogates the common law of negligence, courts must strictly construe the (act's) provisions that grant immunity," Judge Nancy Lichtenstein wrote in the ruling, joined by judges Daniel Taubman and Gilbert Roman. "For the same reason, courts must broadly construe the statute's provisions that waive immunity in the interests of compensating victims injured by the negligence of government agents."
City Attorney John Shaver said city officials will discuss the ruling with the City Council and the city's insurer, CIRSA, before deciding their next steps.
"Once we've had time to analyze the decision, the council will decide whether to seek review by the (Colorado) Supreme Court," Shaver said.
The three students, who don't specify what damages they are seeking, were injured in an explosion of their rental home at 1752 N. Seventh St. on March 19, 2013. The blast was felt by Grand Valley residents blocks away, closed nearby schools and caused the evacuation of about 75 homes. The explosion happened because natural gas had leaked into the home's basement through a sewer line and somehow ignited.
The gas leak was allegedly caused when a city contractor, Grand Junction-based Apeiron Utility Construction, accidently cut into a natural gas line it didn't know existed while boring a hole to install electrical lines to a traffic light. Apeiron had previously hired a Front Range company, Safe Site, to locate gas lines before it began drilling.
When the case was still in district court, the city did not dispute that the gas that caused the explosion came from that broken line, the appellate court said. Regardless, District Judge Brian Flynn had dismissed the case on grounds that a waiver of immunity didn't apply because city workers did not cause the leak.
The three judges, however, didn't buy the city's argument that it was immune from culpability, saying it isn't shielded from liability just because it hired someone else to do the work.
"The waiver's underlying principle would be nullified if the public entity could escape liability by simply hiring an independent contractor for the operation and maintenance of its public facilities," the judges wrote. "We conclude that the waiver of immunity under (the act) applies even if the operation or maintenance was performed by a public entity's independent contractor. The underlying rationale for waiving the public entity's immunity from suit is that a public entity is in a position to avoid injury to the public when it engages in a public works project."
The judges did uphold Flynn's dismissal of another negligence claim against the city that specifically dealt with its sewer line, saying evidence presented in court showed the line was in good condition and wasn't the cause of the gas leak or explosion.