Life Insurance / Suicide

June 10, 2012

Grand Prairie insurance lawyers, and those in Dallas, Fort Worth, Richardson, Mesquite, Garland, Irving, Arlington, and other places in the North Texas area who deal with life insurance cases involving a suicide would want to be aware of this case.
The case is an opinion issued by the Amarillo Court of Appeals in 1986. The style of the case is, Southern Farm Bureau Life Insurance Co. v. Steven M. Dettle, et al. Here is some background.
Southern Farm Bureau appealed from a trial court's judgment rendered in favor of Steven M. Dettle and Phillip D. Dettle, as administrators of the estate of Douglas Dee Dettle, deceased. The controversy arose from Farm Bureau's failure to pay benefits on a policy insuring Douglas Dee Dettle. The deceased - insured was found dead in his apartment in Stratford, Texas. He died as the result of a single shotgun wound to his lower abdomen and genital area. Farm Bureau defended on a suicide exclusion in the policy and certain alleged misrepresentations in the deceased's application for insurance. (Here, we will discuss only the suicide issue). In response to special issues, the jury determined that the deceased's death was not a suicide and that the deceased's "no" answer to the question in the application, "Have you in the past 5 years used alcoholic beverages to excess or intoxication?" was false.
In Court, Farm Bureau claimed that: the court's definition of suicide was erroneous and other issues not discussed here.
Farm Bureau claimed "the trial court's definition of the term 'suicide' erroneously included the element of intent, thereby placing upon Farm Bureau a greater burden of proof than that required under it contractual language or Texas law." This appeals court disagreed and pointed out the following.

In submitting the case to the jury, the trial court inquired:

Do you find from a preponderance of the evidence that the death of the decedent, Douglas D. Dettle, was a suicide?

In conjunction with that issue, the trial court gave the following definition:

"Suicide" means the intentional taking of one's own life, by his own hand or act, whether sane or insane.

In its objections to the court's charge, Farm Bureau stated: "First, the instruction [i.e., definition of suicide] as stated with the word "intentional" in it, misstates the the definition of suicide in the insurance policy upon which suit is brought, and as such placed a greater burden on the defendant than should be required under that insurance policy." Thus, if the word "intentional" is omitted from the definition as Farm Bureau asserted, the definition would read: "'Suicide' means the taking of one's own life, by his own hand or act, whether sane or insane." In that regard, Farm Bureau cited the court to no Texas case where its asserted definition or a similar definition had been approved or suggested by the court, nor had the court found such a case.
Farm Bureau, in essence, contended that the court should give a literal interpretation to the language of the policy, i.e.. "shall die at his own hand or act whether sane or insane." American courts have refused to give such a literal interpretation of the policy language in question.
In this instance, as in most cases where the defense is suicide, the primary issue is whether the death is a suicide, accident, or an accident or homicide at the hand of an unknown third party. Consequently, if the policy language is given a literal interpretation and the court charges in the policy language, the insurer can avoid liability even in those instances of pure accident. In other words, a pure accidental death at one's own hand is excluded by a literal interpretation of the policy language.
Farm Bureau further argued that the inclusion of the word "intentional" in the definition is contrary to the law that suicide does not have to be an intentional act; and,
Farm Bureau objected to the last portion of the instructions submitted in connection with Special Issue No. 1 because it conflicted with the last portion of that same instruction which says quote "whether sane or insane," in as much as the word intentional effectively negates that instruction and permits the jury to find that this wasn't a suicide if the defendant was insane, because he would not have the requisite intent to take his own life. The court said this is contrary to the law and contrary to the wording of the policy upon which the lawsuit was brought.
Under the two previous points, Farm Bureau, in essence, claimed that under the Texas law, suicide does not have to be an intentional act and the court erred in defining suicide as an intentional act. This court disagreed.
This court pointed out that the majority of courts view is that for an act to be "suicide, sane or insane," it is not necessary for the decedent to have realized the physical nature or consequences of his act, nor that he have had a conscious purpose to take his life.
The case examines what other courts in other jurisdictions have done in looking at this issue and ultimately upheld the trial court ruling against Farm Bureau.
Anytime an insurance company denies a claim for benefits under a life insurance policy, an experienced Insurance Law Attorney needs to be consulted. Never rely on an adverse ruling by an insurance company without getting your own, second opinion. You would be surprised have often an insurance company will not even fight when their position is challenged by an attorney who understands Insurance Law.