Colorado, like every state, has a particular set of laws that apply to wrongful death lawsuits. We'll cover those laws in this article, including who may file a wrongful death claim in Colorado and what types of damages they may be entitled to. Finally, we'll discuss the time limits for filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Colorado's civil court system.
In Colorado, a "wrongful death" claim is a civil lawsuit that attempts to establish the liability of one person or company for the death of another. In order to do so, the claimant must demonstrate that the death was caused by the negligence, recklessness, or intentional behavior of another person or entity. Many types of accidents and injuries that form the basis of a personal injury case -- such as car accidents, slip and fall accidents, or injuries inflicted by defective products -- may also form the basis of a wrongful death suit.
So, it is sometimes helpful to think of a wrongful death suit as a personal injury case in which the injured person is no longer available to pursue his or her own claim in a Colorado court. Instead, another party must step in and pursue the claim on behalf of the deceased person and his or her estate.
Colorado statutes specify who may file a wrongful death claim, and they also apply special time limits to each party's ability to file a lawsuit in court (those time limits are discussed in more detail in the next section).
In Colorado, the surviving spouse of a deceased person is the only person who may file a wrongful death claim in the first year after the death. During the second year after the deceased person's death, both the surviving spouse and the surviving children of the deceased person are allowed to file a claim.
If the deceased person left no surviving spouse and no surviving children, then the deceased person's parents may file a wrongful death claim in Colorado.
In addition to the claim filed by the surviving family members, the representative of the deceased person's estate may file a claim to recover damages for certain types of losses to the estate. This claim is known as a "survival action."
In a Colorado wrongful death case, monetary damages are assessed by the jury, or by the judge if there is no jury. The specific amount of damages that might be awarded in a wrongful death lawsuit will depend on the particular facts of the case. But in general, family members who file a wrongful death lawsuit in Colorado may seek damages for losses including:
The representative of the deceased person's estate may also seek damages for losses suffered by the estate, including:
In some cases, the family may also be able to seek punitive damages. Punitive damages are not based on the losses actually suffered as a result of the death. Instead, they are awarded both to punish a wrongdoer for particularly bad behavior and to deter others from acting in extremely negligent or reckless ways.
A wrongful death claim is a civil case, which means that it must be filed by the family or personal representative directly and that liability is expressed solely in terms of money damages. It differs in two key ways from a criminal case. In a criminal case, the case is filed by the state or federal prosecutor, and guilt is punished with a period of imprisonment, probation, or other penalties.
A wrongful death claim may be filed even if a criminal case is proceeding based on the same facts. For instance, if a car accident causes a death and the state files a criminal vehicular homicide case against the surviving driver, the family or representative of the deceased driver may still bring a wrongful death case to court.
In Colorado, all wrongful death lawsuits must be filed within two years of the date of death. This deadline comes from a law called the "statute of limitations."
Colorado further limits the time available to file a wrongful death claim by limiting who may file during certain parts of the two-year period.
During the first year, for instance, the children or parents of a deceased person may not file a wrongful death claim if the deceased person's spouse is still alive. Only the spouse may file the claim during that first year. During the second year, the spouse may still file the claim, but the surviving children of the deceased person may also file. If no spouse or children have survived, the parents may file the claim at any time.