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Gebert v. Sears, Roebuck & Co.

2023 COA 107. No. 22CA0887. Personal Injury—Negligence—Vicarious Liability—Limitations on Damages for Noneconomic Loss or Injury—Seventh Amendment—Right to Civil Jury Trial.

November 9, 2023

Gebert hired Sears, Roebuck & Co. (Sears) to repair a faulty burner on her electric stove. A Sears service technician incorrectly wired the stove, causing the metal parts of the cooking surface to become energized at the same voltage as a standard home outlet. Gebert was subsequently electrocuted while using the stove and suffered symptoms ranging from abnormal sensations in her body, visual disturbances, and ringing ears, to anxiety and cognitive and memory deficits. Gebert sued Sears for negligence and vicarious liability. Sears initially denied that its employee incorrectly wired the stove but later admitted that the repairperson’s incorrect wiring energized the stove. However, Sears continued to deny that the incorrect wiring caused Gebert any injury, and Gebert moved for sanctions under CRCP 37(c)(2) based on Sears’s delayed negligence admission. The case was tried on causation and damages. A jury found that Gebert was injured because of Sears’s negligence and returned a $2 million verdict for Gebert’s noneconomic damages and a $700,000 verdict for physical impairment. Sears moved to reduce Gebert’s noneconomic damages to the then-applicable statutory limit of $468,010 under CRS § 13-21-102.5(3)(a). The district court granted the motion and reduced Gebert’s noneconomic damages to the statutory cap. The court also denied Sears’s motion for a new trial or remittitur and Gebert’s motion for sanctions based on Sears’s delayed negligence admission.

On appeal, Sears argued that the district court erred in admitting evidence that it initially denied negligence in response to the first request for admissions (RFA) but later amended its RFA response to admit negligence. While the district court erred by admitting evidence of Sears’s denial and later admission of negligence because it was not an issue at trial, any error was harmless because it did not substantially influence the case outcome.

On cross-appeal, Gebert argued that CRS § 13-21-102.5(3)(a) is unconstitutional because it violates the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial. Alternatively, Gebert argued that the district court abused its discretion by declining to exceed the presumptive statutory cap. However, the Seventh Amendment has not been applied to the states, and the Colorado Constitution does not guarantee the right to a civil jury trial. Accordingly, the statutory damages cap is constitutional. Further, the statute allows, but does not require, the district court to exceed the statutory cap if it finds a justification for doing so. Here, the district court concluded that Gebert’s injuries were not as severe as those suffered by plaintiffs in cases where the trial court had properly entered a damages award exceeding a damages cap. Thus, the court could not justify, based on clear and convincing evidence, exceeding the statutory cap, and the court’s failure to find a justification to exceed the statutory cap was not manifestly arbitrary, unreasonable, or unfair. Accordingly, the district court did not abuse its discretion in declining to exceed the cap on Gebert’s noneconomic damages at the statutory limit.

The judgment was affirmed.

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

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