Court Overturns Benefits Ruling for Widow of Drunk Driver

November 21, 2006 ( - The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court's decision that the widow of a drunk driver was due accidental death and dismemberment (AD&D) benefits because her husband's accident was not foreseeable.

In its opinion, the appellate court pointed to other court decisions which found that since the hazards of drinking and driving are widely known, insureds should have known driving while intoxicated would result in death or injury. In addition, the court said state laws criminalizing drunk driving are born from the threat of injury or death to the driver or other drivers and therefore lend credence to the conclusion that “a reasonable person in [the insured’s] shoes would have expected the result.”

According to the court, “To characterize harm flowing from such behavior as merely ‘accidental’ diminishes the personal responsibility that state laws and the rules of the road require.”

The appellate court likened driving under the influence to playing Russian Roulette or to a burglar entering an occupied home at the risk of being shot by the occupant, and concluded that “unjustifiable optimism about one’s odds (or failure even to calculate them) does not relieve conduct … of foreseeable results.”

Earl Eckelberry’s car struck a parked tractor trailer on the side of the road in March 2004 when his blood alcohol level was .15 percent. Eckelberry’s widow asked for $86,000 in benefits from his employer’s AD&D plan. The plan administrator, ReliaStar Life Insurance Co., turned her down, citing a provision in the plan that defined the term “accident” as “an unexpected and sudden event which the insured does not foresee.” ReliaStar informed Eckelberry’s widow that her husband had “put himself in a position in which he should have known serious injury or death could occur.”

Eckelberry sued ReliaStar under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), arguing that ReliaStar had acted unreasonably in denying her claim for benefits. The lower court agreed, saying the plan administrator’s decision “defies logic” (See Judge Overturns Benefits Denial in Accidental Death Case ).

The 4 th Circuit’s decision in Eckelberry v. ReliaStar Life Insurance Company is here .