Who Is Allowed to Sue in a Fatal Car Accident?

Recent statistics reveal that over 46,000 people die in car crashes each year in the United States. The traffic fatality rate in our country is currently set at 12.4 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. This translates to approximately 99 deaths on the road daily, with this worrying rate not showing signs of a decrease [1]. Indeed, the number of people who lost their lives in traffic accidents in Colorado reached a 40-year high in 2022, with 745 of our fellow citizens dying on our roads [2].

Car accidents occur at all times and under all kinds of circumstances, sometimes tragically leading to fatalities involving drivers, passengers, pedestrians, cyclists, and even unsuspecting bystanders.

Losing someone in this manner is a source of insurmountable grief that no one can possibly reverse. Even so, it is essential for surviving family members to know that they may receive some financial support to help them deal with the often devastating practical implications of such sudden deaths, mainly when the deceased also happened to be the family’s primary earner.

If you or someone close to you have recently experienced the death of a loved one resulting from a traffic accident, getting professional legal advice as to your options may offer you a significant sense of relief. It will also let you make informed choices to help you navigate the new reality you are currently facing. Ross Ziev and his team at Legal Help in Colorado are committed to offering first-rate services to victims from all walks of life and their families. We have extensive experience in wrongful death cases and a proven track record of success in representing clients who have lost family members on the road.

Wrongful Death Action Essentials

Fatal car accidents occur daily as a result of many different factors. These may include reckless driving due to various reasons, such as driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics, falling asleep, violating stop signs and red lights, speeding, and so on. Holding the negligent party responsible for causing such deaths is effected through a civil legal action called a wrongful death action.

Wrongful death action is regulated by relevant legislation that varies from state to state. It is an entirely separate civil law matter from any criminal charges filed because it is independently filed by entitled private parties. It is, therefore, possible to initiate a wrongful death action irrespective of whether criminal charges were filed and notwithstanding their outcome.

Following the amendment of our applicable state laws in 2023, Colorado is now what is often referred to as an “at-fault” state. This means that parties at fault for car accidents are also liable for paying compensation for the injuries and property damage caused to other parties due to these accidents. Hence, in cases where a car accident leads to a fatality caused due to the legal fault of another person, the deceased’s close family members may file a wrongful death action to compensate them for their loss, including covering the costs arising from said fatality.

Damages Awarded

Practically speaking, the compensation of family members of individuals who have lost their lives due to a traffic accident caused by another party’s negligence or carelessness may entail economic and non-economic damages. In other words, it may include losses that can be directly quantified in terms of money, but also ones that involve emotional distress caused to the surviving family members of the deceased.

Some examples of economic losses commonly include, but are not limited to, expenses related to the medical care the victim has received, funeral expenses, loss of earnings, lost benefits, life insurance payouts, etc.

In addition to economic damages, non-economic damages may be awarded to compensate for the pain, suffering, and emotional loss experienced by the members. These include loss of love, companionship, care, affection, parental guidance, and other consequences of such tragic fatalities.

In our state, the applicable legal framework for wrongful death actions is set out in §§13-21-201 through to §§13-21-204 of the Colorado Revised Statutes, commonly called the Colorado Wrongful Death Act [3]. The Act defines “wrongful death” as a death occurring due to “a wrongful act, neglect, or default of another” person or entity. Moreover, it sets out the specific parameters of such actions, such as who may pursue a wrongful death action, the statute of limitations, the amounts that may receive in damages, and so on.

In certain wrongful death cases where the existence of fraud, malice, or willful or wanton conduct can be shown, it may even be possible to recover punitive (exemplary) damages. To do so, certain conditions must be met, and the necessary procedure for claiming such damages must be followed, as stipulated in CRS §§13-21-201.

Are There Any Caps in Damages?

The Colorado Wrongful Death Act places specific caps on the damages claimants may recover. Generally speaking, there is no limit on economic damages for wrongful death actions. Nevertheless, the amount of damages sought must be calculated accurately and proven based on related evidence that you must submit.

Conversely, as of 2022, a cap of $613,760.00 is set on non-economic damages. This is regularly re-evaluated, while the maximum amount of exemplary damages that may be sought is three times that of actual (economic) damages.

As each individual case is unique, various exceptions may apply in different situations. For example, what if there is no surviving widow, children, or parents? Caps may even be lifted when, for instance, the decedent’s death occurred due to a felonious killing. Therefore, you must discuss your particular case with an experienced professional, who will be better placed to advise you regarding what you can expect and how to proceed when claiming compensation.

Who May File a Wrongful Death Claim and When?

Since the very reason for wrongful death actions is to offer financial support to surviving family members, it makes sense that the law should limit who may bring such an action. It also grants certain individuals—such as orphans and widows—a priority when claiming compensation.

Accordingly, within the first year after a person’s death in a car accident caused due to the fault of another, the Colorado Wrongful Death Act only allows the spouse of the deceased or the deceased’s heirs to bring a wrongful death action, with the spouse’s consent. In cases where there is no surviving spouse, the heirs of the dead (children) or the designated beneficiary may also bring a case.

In the second year following a person’s death, the deceased’s spouse may still bring an action if they did not already do so within the first year of the victim’s passing. At this time, the heirs of the deceased (children) or their designated beneficiary may also bring an action—even without the spouse’s consent or in a joint effort with the spouse.

In cases where the deceased had no spouse or children, their parents will also be entitled to file a wrongful death claim at this second-year mark, even though parents don’t generally have a right to bring a wrongful death action in Colorado and may only do so if their child is not survived by a spouse or heirs.

In this context, in Colorado, wrongful death is essentially limited to lineal descendants. Hence, siblings, uncles, and aunts are generally not entitled to file a wrongful death lawsuit. This applies even if other entitled parties, such as spouses, children, or parents, decide not to file an action or even when no other parties exist.

Complications Concerning Standing

In theory, the law is very clear on who may file a wrongful action and when. In reality, however, matters can often prove to be much more complicated than this. For instance, what about a spouse and children from previous marriages? What if children wish to file an action, but their paternity or maternity has not been established? In several situations, different parties entitled to pursue a wrongful death action may have conflicting interests or claims.

Complications Concerning Time Limitations

Similarly, the statute of limitations prescribed by the Wrongful Death Act provides a two-year window from the date of death within which an action may be filed. Failure to do so means that you will generally be unable to file an action afterward.

Even so, there are several exceptions to this seemingly strict and precise rule, which may be applicable depending on each particular situation. Consequently, the statute of limitations may be extended for inevitable fatal car accidents. For example, the defendant may have attempted to hide facts in order to obstruct the process of retrieval or evidence, or they may have engaged in fraud or even committed vehicular homicide in a hit-and-run accident.

The best advice one could give you is to seek the assistance of a legal professional specializing in wrongful death actions as soon as possible after the fatal car accident that has affected you. This will help ensure that you receive accurate and individualized guidance as to your options and the applicable time limitations and procedural requirements.

No two cases are ever the same. In addition to the emotional distress that wrongful death actions entail, you must remain vigilant about the many practical complications they present. Remember: time is of the essence, and there is a lot that has to be done in terms of conducting elaborate research, collecting evidence, speaking to experts and witnesses, etc., to ensure a successful outcome.

Additional Considerations

You may only be successful in a wrongful death action in Colorado if you can show that the person who departed would have been legally entitled to recover damages against the person(s) who caused the injury or condition that led to their death.

Consequently, the defendant in a wrongful death action may raise any defenses they might have used to defend themselves against an injury claim on the part of the deceased. Such defenses typically include comparative negligence or assumption of risk.

Furthermore, you must satisfy the two fundamental requirements of causation and liability. In other words, you will need to prove that the defendant’s careless, negligent, or reckless behavior led to the fatality in question, so simply claiming that it was the car accident that led to your loved one’s death will not suffice. Doing so requires knowledge, expertise, and submission of convincing evidence, coupled with an accurate calculation of the damages sought.

At Legal Help in Colorado, we have the experience, expertise, and resources to guide and support you during this complex process with respect and in absolute confidence. Reach out to book a free consultation so that we can discuss your case and offer you a clear and practical overview of your options.


[1] https://www.forbes.com/advisor/legal/auto-accident/car-accident-deaths/

[2] https://coloradonewsline.com/2023/01/24/colorado-highest-traffic-death-toll/

[3] https://www.courts.state.co.us/userfiles/file/Court_Probation/Supreme_Court/Committees/Civil_Jury_Instructions_Committee/Chapter%2010.pdf

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