Is Wrongful Death A Crime In Colorado?

Wrongful death lawsuits are commonly confused with criminal cases, and understandably so. For many people, it is common to wonder, is wrongful death a crime? After the death of a loved one, it’s typical that criminal charges are brought forward to hold the responsible party accountable. In many cases, wrongful-death lawsuits can also arise from the grieving family members as a way to compensate survivors due to the loss. Today, we’ll go over both types of cases, the ways in which they overlap and, more importantly, how they differ from each other. 

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Is a Wrongful Death Case Considered a Criminal Case in Colorado?

If an individual loses a loved one due to the negligence of another individual or entity, they can pursue a civil case through a wrongful death lawsuit as outlined by Colorado Law (CRS § 13-21-201). A wrongful death lawsuit seeks to compensate a decedent’s family for the loss of their loved one.

If the negligence that caused the wrongful death of an individual was also a criminal act, Colorado State prosecutors can pursue criminal charges against the negligent individual or entity.

A criminal case is separate from a wrongful death lawsuit, as a criminal case seeks to punish the individual who caused the wrongful death, while a civil case seeks to compensate the loved ones of a decedent. 

Types of Events That Can Be the Basis for a Wrongful Death Case

The wrongful death of an individual can occur for a variety of reasons. However, for a wrongful death suit to be successful, the plaintiff must be able to show that the individual or entity was negligent in their behavior or actions that caused the circumstances which led to the victim’s death.

Actions or events that commonly lead to wrongful death lawsuits include the following:

  • Medical malpractice
  • Slip and fall accidents
  • Workplace accidents
  • Automobile and truck accidents
  • Motorcycle and bicycle accidents
  • Construction related events
  • Other negligence-based accidents

How Does the Burden of Proof Differentiate in a Wrongful Death Civil Case vs. a Criminal Case?

In both a wrongful death civil case and a criminal case, a plaintiff has to prove that the named defendant, whether they are an individual or entity, was the cause of the wrongful death. The burden of proof, however, differs between a civil case and a criminal case.

Burden of Proof in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

A plaintiff who files a wrongful death lawsuit against an individual or entity must prove that the defendant was the cause of the wrongful death. There are four elements to consider in a wrongful death lawsuit, and each must be proven in order to have a successful claim. These elements include the following:

  • Negligence –  The defendant failed to act with ordinary or reasonable care. If the defendant intentionally sought to cause harm, this would satisfy the element of negligence.
  • Death of another person –  An individual died.
  • Causation – The death was the result of the defendant’s negligence.
  • Damages –  The death resulted in a monetary and non-monetary loss to the plaintiff. These losses include both economic and non-economic damages.

Burden of Proof in a Criminal Case

In a criminal case, a prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s actions caused the death of an individual. Proving an individual’s negligence beyond a reasonable doubt essentially means that when the criminal prosecution outlines the different elements of the case, the jury must be able to see that, without a doubt, the defendant was the reason the death of an individual occurred.

Can You Win a Civil Wrongful Death Claim if There’s No Conviction?

wrongful death lawyer in court writing down notes

Because wrongful death civil cases and wrongful death criminal cases are two separate types of legal action—involving different court systems—it is entirely possible to win a wrongful death lawsuit even if the defendant was not convicted of any charges.

The stakes are high in a criminal case, and a higher standard must be met when establishing proof that an individual was responsible for another’s death.

Civil cases, on the other hand, have a much lower threshold when it comes to the burden of proof. Because of this, it is possible for an individual to be found not guilty of an individual’s death but be found guilty in a civil case through a wrongful death lawsuit.

One of the most iconic examples of this is the case of former football player Orenthal James Simpson. During his criminal court trial, he was found not guilty of the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. However, Simpson was found guilty in a civil court following a wrongful death lawsuit against him.

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Colorado?

Like most states, Colorado follows a line of succession when outlining who can file a wrongful death lawsuit. A line of succession is implemented so that the individuals who are most financially dependent on a decedent are eligible for financial compensation.

In the first year following the wrongful death, the decedent’s spouse is the only individual that can file a wrongful death claim. If there is no spouse, children can file on behalf of their parents. If the decedent had no children, then parents can file in that first year.

Following the first year, a decedent’s heirs can file a wrongful death lawsuit or join in on a lawsuit that was already filed in the first year.

Additionally, any individual who is named as a designated beneficiary of the decedent can file a lawsuit on behalf of the decedent and their estate.

Damages for Wrongful Deaths

In filing a wrongful death lawsuit, plaintiffs can seek economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages seek full compensation associated with wrongful death. These damages are typically easy to calculate and can include the following:

  • Lost wages
  • Benefits including life insurance
  • Bills associated with hospital stays and medical treatment
  • Burial and funeral expenses

Non-economic damages are subjective, as they seek to compensate an individual for pain and suffering experienced after an individual’s death. Examples of non-economic damages can include but are not limited to the following:

  • Emotional distress
  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of consortium
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Loss of companionship

How Can a Colorado Wrongful Death Lawyer Help You File a Case?

team of colorado wrongful death lawyers discussing work at a table

Because the burden of proof lies with the individual filing a wrongful-death lawsuit, it’s important for plaintiffs to have clear and credible evidence to back up their claim. Working with an experienced wrongful death attorney can help you navigate this road.

Navigating the death of a loved one can be an arduous process to move through. Work with a team that’s committed to simplifying the process so that you get the representation and compensation you deserve.

CRS 13-21-201
Economic Damages. (2022)
Non-economic Damages. (2022)
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Written and Legally Reviewed By: Kyle Bachus

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Kyle is a member of the Colorado and Florida Bar associations and has served on the Board of Directors of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association for more than twenty years in total. Over the years, Kyle has achieved justice for many clients. He has served on numerous committees and repeatedly won recognition from his peers at both the state and national level. He is proud of the role he has played in the passage of state and national legislation to protect consumers and is a frequent speaker and guest lecturer.