When a person dies as a result of another party's accidental or intentional action, the deceased person's estate could be eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Colorado, like every other state, has a set of laws that apply to wrongful death claims. We'll look at several key aspects of these laws, including who might be eligible to file a wrongful death claim in Colorado, what types of damages might be available, and the time limit on filing this type of lawsuit in the state's civil courts.
Colorado law defines a "wrongful death" as a death that is caused by "a wrongful act, neglect, or default of another" person or entity. A wrongful death claim can be brought in any situation where the person could have brought a personal injury claim had he or she survived. (Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 13-21-201, 13-21-202 (2021).) So, it can be helpful to think of a wrongful death case as a type of personal injury lawsuit, in which the injured person is no longer available to pursue his or her own case in court. Instead, another party must step in and file a wrongful death claim on behalf of the deceased person.
Many types of events can be the basis for a wrongful death claim, including:
As in other types of personal injury lawsuits, the defendant's liability in a successful wrongful death case is expressed solely in terms of financial compensation ("damages") that the court orders the defendant to pay to the deceased person's survivors. This is one major difference between a wrongful death lawsuit and a criminal homicide case, where a conviction can result in jail or prison time, fines paid to the state, probation, and other penalties.
Another big difference between a criminal prosecution for homicide and a wrongful death civil lawsuit: In criminal court, the accused's guilt must be established "beyond a reasonable doubt"—a very high bar for the prosecution to clear. In a civil lawsuit, the defendant's liability must be shown only "by a preponderance of the evidence," meaning it's more likely than not that the defendant is responsible for the death. It is possible, though, for a single act to result in criminal charges and a wrongful death claim: A defendant can be sued for wrongful death in civil court, even when facing criminal charges related to the same death.
Learn more about proving liability in a wrongful death case.
Colorado law determines who can bring a wrongful death claim—and when—in the following ways.
In the first year after the person's death. In Colorado, if the deceased person has a surviving spouse, only the surviving spouse may file a wrongful death lawsuit in the first year after the death, with the following exceptions: During that year, the surviving spouse may elect in writing to allow the deceased's children to file the claim or join with the deceased's children in filing a claim. If the person was unmarried, the deceased person's children or designated beneficiary may bring the wrongful death lawsuit.
In the second year after the person's death. In the second year after the person's death, any of the following people may bring a wrongful death case:
If the deceased person's children file a wrongful death case, the surviving spouse and/or designated beneficiary have 90 days to join the lawsuit.
If the deceased person was unmarried—whether as a minor or an adult—and had no designated beneficiary or children, the person's parents may bring the wrongful death action.
(Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 13-21-201, 13-21-202 (2021).)
In a wrongful death case, "damages"—or the plaintiff's claimed losses—are typically divided into two categories: economic and noneconomic. Economic damages are paid to the deceased person's survivors to cover financial losses associated with the death. Some common types of economic damages awarded in Colorado include:
Noneconomic damages can be more difficult to quantify than economic damages, but they are intended to compensate for the intangible losses suffered by the deceased person's family as a result of the death. In Colorado, noneconomic damages can include money paid to compensate survivors for:
Many states, including Colorado, have placed limits on the amount of damages that can be awarded to a plaintiff in a wrongful death case. State law currently limits noneconomic damages in most wrongful death suits to $571,870, an amount that is adjusted every two years. If the wrongful death claim is based on a "felonious killing" (defined as first- or second-degree murder or manslaughter), the cap on noneconomic damages does not apply. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-203 (2021).)
There is no limit on the amount of economic damages a court can award in a Colorado wrongful death case. Get more details on damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.
Wrongful death claims must be filed within a specific period of time, set by a law known as a statute of limitations. In Colorado, most wrongful death lawsuits must be filed within two years of the date of the person's death. However, if the person died as a result of a hit-and-run vehicular homicide, the wrongful death case must be filed within four years of the death. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-80-102 (2021).)
If you're considering a wrongful death lawsuit in Colorado, it's a good idea to consult a personal injury attorney. Wrongful death cases can be complicated, and an experienced lawyer can explain how the law might apply to your specific situation.