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Bocian v. Owners Insurance Co.

2020 COA 98. No. 19CA0786. Insurance Bad Faith—Underinsured Motorist Benefits—Judicial Disqualification—Expert Testimony—Evidentiary Rulings.

June 18, 2020

Bocian was injured in a car accident and settled with the at-fault driver’s insurer for its policy limit. Bocian then made an underinsured motorist (UIM) claim with her insurer, Owners Insurance Company (Owners), for medical costs and lost wages. Bocian provided Owners with a report from economist Nehls that calculated $63,600 in wage loss due to the collision. Owners determined that the information Bocian supplied was insufficient to support the wage loss claim and it offered her $15,000 to settle. Bocian rejected the offer and sued, asserting claims for breach of contract, bad faith breach of contract, and statutory unreasonable denial/delay of insurance benefits.

Bocian disclosed Nehls as an expert who would testify. Owners moved to strike his testimony and report, arguing that his methodology was not reliable and the testimony would not be helpful to the jury. The court held a hearing on the motion. Hours after the hearing, Bocian filed a motion under CRCP 97 to disqualify the trial judge, alleging the judge had demonstrated actual bias and an appearance of bias against the law firm representing Bocian. The court denied Bocian’s motion, and it later granted Owners’ motion to strike Nehls as an expert and precluded his report from being presented to the jury. Bocian presented a lay opinion at trial that her lost wages totaled $19,200. The jury found that Owners breached the insurance contract but had not acted in bad faith or unreasonably delayed payment. It awarded Bocian $90,000.

On appeal, Bocian argued that the judge abused his discretion in denying her motion to disqualify and manifested additional bias during the case that required his disqualification. Under CRCP 97, disqualification is appropriate when the motion and supporting affidavits allege sufficient facts from which it may reasonably be inferred that the judge is prejudiced or biased, or appears to be so, against a party or counsel to the litigation. Here, most of the factual allegations asserted in the motion were opinions, speculation, and unsubstantiated conclusions, which are legally insufficient to warrant disqualification. The motion to disqualify did not, as a matter of law, allege sufficient facts to support the inference of actual or apparent bias or prejudice to require disqualification. Accordingly, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Bocian’s motion.

Bocian also argued that the trial court erred in excluding Nehls’s expert testimony. Trial courts are vested with broad discretion to determine the admissibility of expert testimony. Here, the trial court carefully considered the reliability of Nehls’s methodology and whether it would be helpful to the jury. The court made specific findings under CRE 104, 403, and 702 based on appropriate Colorado case law and Nehls’s report, testimony, and supplemental memorandum. Thus, the court did not abuse its discretion.

Bocian next contended that, even if the trial court properly excluded Nehls’s expert testimony, it erred by excluding Nehls’s report from the jury for purposes of her bad faith claim. While the report could have been admitted for the limited purpose of determining Owners’ bad faith and not the amount of Bocian’s lost wages, this would have been a difficult distinction for the jury to draw. Therefore, to the extent the report could have been admitted with such a limiting instruction, the risk of jury confusion was significant. Under CRE 403 the trial court’s decision to exclude the report was not manifestly erroneous.

Bocian also argued that the trial court erred by allowing Owners to introduce evidence that Bocian didn’t report the $19,200 amount in lost wages during the claim process. To the extent Bocian was prejudiced by a reference during testimony or closing argument to her not reporting $19,200 in lost wages previously, the jury heard testimony that this fact did not make any difference to whether Owners acted unreasonably. The jury also heard evidence that Bocian sought lost wages during the claim process and submitted an economic analysis of her lost wages to Owners. Thus, even assuming these exchanges constituted error, any error was harmless.

The judgment was affirmed.

Official Colorado Court of Appeals proceedings can be found at the Colorado Court of Appeals website.

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