A person who has lost a loved one in an accidental death that a third party has caused may seek compensation for the losses, such as lost income after the death of a family breadwinner. Payments for pain and suffering or the loss of a spouse’s companionship are also available under Colorado law.
While nothing can replace your lost loved one, it is appropriate to consider compensation you are legally due, and your financial well-being after the loss of a loved one. However, you also need to understand Colorado’s limit on the amount of money you may obtain through a wrongful death claim.
There is no limit on the recovery of economic damages, including medical expenses related to the fatal injury, burial costs and money the family member would have earned and contributed to the family.
What are the Caps on Wrongful Death Compensation in Colorado?
Under Colorado law, noneconomic damages in a wrongful death cases were originally capped at $250,000. But the limit has increased significantly over the years with adjustments for inflation and now stands at approximately $468,000. Noneconomic damages are paid for pain, suffering, grief and loss of companionship.
What is a Wrongful Death Claim in Colorado?
The survivors of a person who has been killed in an incident caused by someone else’s negligence or misconduct may bring a wrongful death lawsuit seeking compensation for financial losses and hardship caused by the death, and for their grief (noneconomic damages). A wrongful death lawsuit is a civil claim separate from any criminal charges filed.
A wrongful death claim may arise from a traffic accident, such as a motor vehicle fatality, or an intentional act of violence that causes death, i.e., murder. The limit on non-economic damages does not apply to cases involving a crime of murder in the first or second degree, or manslaughter.
Certain immediate family members of the deceased are eligible to file a wrongful death claim. This is typically the spouse or children. If there is no surviving spouse or child, the deceased’s parents may file a claim.
Colorado law also allows the “designated beneficiary” of the deceased to bring a wrongful death claim. The law defines “designated beneficiary” as one who has entered into an agreement with another person for each to designate the other as their beneficiary.
To succeed, a wrongful death lawsuit must be based on evidence that the death was caused by the negligence, disregard for safety (recklessness), or an intentional act of another person, business or other entity.
A civil jury hearing a wrongful death trial must weigh whether a preponderance of the evidence indicates the defendant was negligent, reckless or acted intentionally and, therefore, the plaintiff should be compensated. A “preponderance of the evidence” is a much lower threshold to meet than the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is applied in criminal cases.
The evidence in a wrongful death lawsuit must persuade a jury that the family members deserve to be compensated or convince an insurance company that it is in the company’s best interest to settle before going to trial.
The statute of limitations in Colorado requires family members to file a wrongful death lawsuit within two years of the death.
What Compensation is Available in a Wrongful Death Claim?
As stated above, compensation, or “damages,” sought in a wrongful death are identified as either “economic” or “noneconomic” damages.
Economic damages are meant to replace financial contributions the deceased person would have made to the family household if he or she had not been killed. The amount sought in a lawsuit may be based on the value of:
- The deceased’s earnings
- The deceased’s employment benefits (medical insurance, stock options or other retirement investments)
- Inheritance that the survivor(s) would have received
- Funeral and medical expenses paid out in the death.
Noneconomic damages are meant to compensate surviving family members for how the loss of their loved one has diminished their joy of life. This payment is based on a value placed on the plaintiff’s:
- Pain, suffering and grief
- Loss of guidance, care, advice, and nurturing from the decedent
- Loss of companionship and love
- Loss of consortium with a spouse.
In special cases, a jury may award exemplary damages (also known as punitive damages) if the jury finds that the defendant acted with malice, fraud, or willful and wanton conduct that led to death.
Economic damages are easily calculated using documents like employment records, account statements, and medical bills or funeral expenses. But noneconomic damages and exemplary damages are harder to calculate. There are no specific numbers to add up.
How Capping Damages Can Affect How Much You are Awarded
Many times, a lawsuit will multiply economic damages by two or three and demand that amount as noneconomic damages. And this is one way Colorado’s cap on noneconomic damages can reduce compensation recovered in a wrongful death claim.
Consider the Colorado family whose primary breadwinner died after a drunk driving accident. She was an investment banker in Denver who was hospitalized for weeks and endured three rounds of surgery before dying from multiple injuries the drunk driver caused.
The noneconomic damages cap of about $468,000 could quickly be exceeded if a claim sought to double economic losses calculated from medical bills easily topping $100,000, plus the loss of her six-figure salary, and retirement account contributions, all of which would have increased in the future.
Another factor of concern is that the Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that caps on noneconomic damages must be applied on a per-claim basis rather than a per-defendant basis. The problem is that when there are multiple defendants, the jury apportions responsibility for damages among them.
As is often the case, Colorado law and how it is applied can be complicated. A successful wrongful death claims often hinges on the attorneys’ knowledge and experience and their skill at negotiating with opposing attorneys and insurance company representatives.
The Sawaya Law Firm represents families of wrongful death victims in Denver and throughout Colorado. If you believe that a family member of yours has died in a wrongful death, contact us for a free and confidential meeting and discussion of the legal options available to you.