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Hansen v. Barron's Oilfield Service, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Fifth Division

September 6, 2018

Arik Hansen, as the surviving parent of Wendy Ulmer, deceased, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Barron's Oilfield Service, Inc., a Colorado corporation; and Victor Hierro, Defendants-Appellees.

          Adams County District Court No. 16CV31446 Honorable Emily E. Anderson, Judge

          Announced September 6, 2018 Bachus & Schanker, LLC, J. Kyle Bachus, Claire Soto, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellant

          Padilla & Padilla, PLLC, Joaquin G. Padilla, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellee Barron's Oilfield Service, Inc.

          The Ukasick Law Firm, Troy A. Ukasick, Loveland, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellee Victor Hierro

          OPINION

          LOEB CHIEF JUDGE

         ¶ 1 In this wrongful death action, plaintiff, Arik Hansen, appeals the district court's judgment granting the motion to dismiss of defendant, Barron's Oilfield Service, Inc. (Barron's), for lack of standing under the Colorado Wrongful Death Act (WDA).[1] §§ 13-21-201 to -204, C.R.S. 2017. We conclude that whether the parent of a deceased adult has standing to bring a wrongful death action under section 13-21-201(1) is determined as of the decedent's date of death; thus, under the circumstances here, a parent of an adult deceased does not have standing to sue under the WDA when the deceased was married at the time of her death. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment and remand with directions.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         ¶ 2 Wendy Ulmer (Wife) died in an automobile collision with Barron's employee, Victor Hierro, on March 21, 2016. At the time of her death, Wife was married to Benjamin Ulmer (Husband) and had no children. It is undisputed that when Wife died, she was married to Husband, and that Husband survived her.

         ¶ 3 On July 29, 2016, the law firm of Bachus & Schanker filed a wrongful death action on Husband's behalf, naming Barron's and Hierro as defendants. However, apparently unbeknownst to the attorneys, Husband had died of natural causes sometime prior to the filing of the complaint.[2]

         ¶ 4 Upon learning of Husband's death, Bachus & Schanker filed an amended complaint on September 9, 2016, substituting Hansen, Wife's father (Parent), as the plaintiff. In October, Barron's filed a motion to dismiss under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5), arguing for dismissal of the action based on Parent's lack of standing to sue under the WDA. The motion argued that the WDA must be strictly construed, and that, under section 13-21-201(1)(c)(I), a parent has standing to sue for the death of an adult child only when, as of the date of death, the adult child is unmarried and has no children. Thus, Barron's argued, Parent did not have standing to sue because Wife was married to Husband at the time of her death.

         ¶ 5 In his response to the motion to dismiss, Parent argued that the WDA should be liberally construed to conclude that, under the circumstances here, where Husband died prior to filing a wrongful death action, Parent should be allowed to file the action. Parent argued that because Husband was dead at the time Parent filed his wrongful death action, Wife was "unmarried" for purposes of section 13-21-201(1)(c)(I) of the WDA.

         ¶ 6 The district court ruled in favor of Barron's, concluding that, because Wife was a married adult without children on the date of her death, Parent did not have standing under section 13-21-201(1)(c)(I) to bring a wrongful death action. Accordingly, the district court dismissed Parent's action with prejudice, and this appeal followed.

         II. Standard of Review

         ¶ 7 Although Barron's motion to dismiss was nominally filed pursuant to C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5), for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, the only basis for the district court's order granting the motion was Parent's lack of standing under the WDA to sue for the death of Wife. "Standing is a component of subject matter jurisdiction and is a constitutional prerequisite to maintaining a lawsuit." Sandstrom v. Solen, 2016 COA 29, ¶ 14 (quoting Maralex Res., Inc. v. Chamberlain, 2014 COA 5, ¶ 8). Thus, we analyze the motion to dismiss as a motion under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(1), based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

         ¶ 8 The issue of standing is a legal question that we review de novo. Sandstrom, ¶ 14. We employ a mixed standard of review for motions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Grant Bros. Ranch, LLC v. Antero Res. Piceance Corp., 2016 COA 178, ¶ 15. We review the district court's factual findings for clear error and the court's legal conclusions de novo. Id.

         ¶ 9 We also review a district court's interpretation of a statute de novo. Id. Our primary task in interpreting statutes is to give effect to the General Assembly's intent by looking to the statute's plain language. E.g., Stanley v. Dist. Attorney, 2017 COA 33, ¶ 10. "To discern the General Assembly's intent, we look to the plain language of the statute, and where that language is clear and unambiguous, we engage in no further statutory analysis." Hotsenpiller v. Morris, 2017 COA 95, ¶ 18 (quoting People v. Rice, 2015 COA 168, ¶ 11). Where the language of a statute is plain and clear, we must apply the statute as written. In re 2000-2001 Dist. Grand Jury, 97 P.3d 921, 924 (Colo. 2004). We must read and consider the statute as a whole in order to give consistent, harmonious, and sensible effect to all of its parts. Stanley, ¶ 10. However, a statutory interpretation leading to an illogical or absurd result will not be followed. Id. Further, we may not adopt a construction that renders any term superfluous or meaningless. Rice, ¶ 11.

         ¶ 10 A statute's silence on an issue does not necessarily mean that the statute is ambiguous. In re 2000-2001 Dist. Grand Jury, 97 P.3d at 924. "If . . . a statute can be construed and applied as written, the legislature's silence on collateral matters is not this court's concern, for we will not strain to construe a statute unless necessary to avoid an absurd result." Id. (citations omitted).

         III. Statutory Framework

         ¶ 11 The WDA creates a statutory right to bring suit for a person's death resulting from negligence. Section 13-21-201 is titled "Damages for death" and governs deaths resulting from the negligence of railroad employees and common carriers and, of importance for this case, defines who has the statutory right to file a wrongful death action and when. As relevant here, the statute provides the following:

(1) When any person dies from any injury resulting from or occasioned by the negligence, unskillfulness, or criminal intent of any officer, agent, servant, or employee [of a railroad or other common carrier] . . . [the employer] shall forfeit and pay for every person and passenger so injured the sum of not exceeding ten thousand dollars and not less than three thousand dollars, which may be sued for and recovered:
(a) In the first year after such death:
(I) By the spouse of the deceased;
(II) Upon the written election of the spouse, by the spouse and the heir or heirs of the deceased;
(III) Upon the written election of the spouse, by the heir or heirs of the deceased; or
(IV) If there is no spouse, by the heir or heirs of the deceased or the designated beneficiary, if there is one designated pursuant to article 22 of title 15, C.R.S., with the right to bring an action pursuant to this section, and if there is no ...

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