Drunken Driving Cycle Fatality an Insurance "Accident"

February 11, 2004 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A federal appeals court has thrown out a decision denying double indemnity life insurance benefits to the relatives of a man killed in a drunk-driving motorcycle accident, saying the death wasn't foreseeable and should be covered under the plan.

The US 8 th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling by a Minnesota federal judge that the incident was a foreseeable outcome of plaintiff Martin Schanus’s decision to drive drunk on his motorcycle.

Relying on a 1990 decision by the US 1 st Circuit Court of Appeals, the 8 th Circuit panel ruled that Schanus didn’t necessarily expect to lose his life when he drove his motorcycle home from a Minnesota bar in June 2000 without a helmet and with a blood alcohol level of 0.19%. According to the ruling, Schanus crashed while driving around a sharp curve along a winding road, got thrown into a fence, and later died from brain injuries caused by the impact.

“Here, subjectively, the driver intended to come up safely,” the 8 th Circuit judges wrote in their ruling. “…a reasonable person in the shoes of the insured would not have viewed the crash and subsequent death as ‘highly likely to occur.”

Schanus’s daughter, Alane King, appealed the lower court’s ruling in favor of insurance carrier Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Co. Hartford argued to the lower court judge that Schanus’s voluntary intoxication, coupled with the danger inherent in drunk driving, rendered the crash a “self-inflicted injury,” rather than an “accident” under the plan. Consequently, Hartford denied double indemnity benefits in the case.

But the 8 th Circuit wasn’t buying Hartford’s assertions. “Here Hartford concedes that Schanus’s decision to drive home drunk was just that, not a decision to commit suicide,” the appeals judges wrote. “Nor does Hartford present any evidence suggesting that Schanus subjectively undertook his last drive as a gamble or risky game, consciously ignoring the dangers inherent in drunk driving.”

The case is King v. Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Co., 8th Cir., No. 02-3934, 2/9/04.