Judge Clears Way for Accidental Death Benefits Suit

June 24, 2004 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A Kansas federal judge has ruled that a lawsuit filed by the family of a man who died after a June 2001 motorcycle wreck can proceed over whether the circumstances leading to the death were accidental.

U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas turned away efforts by the American United Life Insurance Co., to throw out the lawsuit by the family of Thomas Cowser who was injured and later died from the 2001 accident. American argued that accidental death benefits were not due under the policy maintained by Cowser’s employer because the wreck wasn’t an “accident” due to Cowser’s drug and alcohol consumption.

Robinson pointed out that there were continuing questions that could be submitted to a jury about whether Cowser’s death was caused by his drinking or possibly by a drug administered by the hospital that treated him for his head injury.   Whether or not the accident was foreseeable was still an open question, the judge said.

“Given these circumstances, the Court cannot find as a matter of law that Mr. Cowser’s death was not ‘accidental.’ Defendant cannot sustain a determination that all deaths that are causally related to the ingestion of alcohol could reasonably be construed as not accidental. To interpret the plan in such a way would render the coverage meaningless,” the court said.

According to the court, a Kansas Highway Patrol officer who investigated the accident obtained Cowser’s consent to perform a blood alcohol level test. Cowser’s blood alcohol level was below the legal limit at 0.07, according to the court.   Five days after he was admitted to the hospital, Cowser was given a dose of the drug Haldol and subsequently had a seizure that resulted in his death.

The full text of the opinion in Cowser v. American United Life Insurance Co., D. Kan., No. 02-4089-JAR, 6/17/04, is at http://www.ksd.uscourts.gov/opinions/024089-21.pdf .