Who Caused The Death?

Benbrook insurance lawyers at some point will have to deal with the Slayer Statute which is found in the Texas Insurance Code, Section 1103.151. In 1900, the Slayer Statute did not exist in Texas. A Texas opinion from that time illustrates how it works today. A person has to prove the beneficiary caused the death of the insured in order to be able to prevent the beneficiary from receiving policy benefits. The case is styled, Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Kentucky v. Mellott.
Mutual denied policy benefits based on the allegations that the beneficiary (Mrs. Mellott) caused the death of the insured (William Mellott) by administering to him strychnine poison for the purpose of causing his death.
Briefly stated, the facts proven on the trial are as follows: The policy on the life of William Mellott was issued on the 15th day of March, 1898, and said Mellott died on June 13, 1898. The evidence is conflicting as to whether Mr. or Mrs. Mellott procured the issuance of the policy, but the premium on the policy was paid by Mrs. Mellott. About the same time this policy was issued Mrs. Mellott procured the issuance of a policy for $10,000 by the same company on the life of Lucinda Jeffers, and had said policy assigned to her by Mrs. Jeffers. The evidence is conflicting as to whether or not Mrs. Jeffers knew that a policy had been issued on her life, and that she had transferred same to Mrs. Mellott; she testifying that Mrs. Mellott told her shortly after she had signed the paper, which she understood only gave Mrs. Mellott the right to use the policy, that she failed to pass a satisfactory examination, and that the policy had not been issued, in which statement she was corroborated by the testimony of two other witnesses. Mrs. Jeffers about this time made a will bequeathing all of her property, including the policy in question, to Mrs. Mellott. The deceased, William Mellott, for more than a year previous to his death, had been in bad health, suffering from trouble with his stomach and bowels, which trouble had at times caused him to have convulsions. About a month before his death he was seriously ill with entero coletis, the same character of disease which his attending physician testified was the cause of his death. On the 6th day of June, 1898, he was taken suddenly ill, and Dr. McKay was sent for; he being the nearest physician, and the emergency not allowing his regular physician to be sent for. He was first attacked with spasms or convulsions. Dr. McKay attended him regularly from the 6th to the 13th of June, making several visits each day. This physician testified that the deceased had convulsions from the first day that he was called to see him, and that such convulsions were among the usual symptoms, or rather results, of the disease from which the patient was suffering. His last visit to deceased before his death was about 8 o’clock on the evening before his death. At this time he thought the deceased was better, and did not anticipate a fatal termination of the disease. The deceased began to grow worse shortly after Dr. McKay left, on the evening of the 12th, and died about 4 or 5 o’clock the next morning. The doctor was sent for about 11 o’clock that night, but was not at home, and was again sent for about 3 o’clock. In answer to this last call he went to Mellott’s house, but arrived there just after his death. The preponderance of the evidence is to the effect that the convulsions from which deceased began to suffer shortly after Dr. McKay left him, on the evening of the 12th, were of the same general character as those which deceased had previously had, but were more severe, and continued to increase in frequency and severity until they produced death. One witness, however, a Mr. Sonnen, testified that he was with the deceased from about 8 until about 12 o’clock that night, and that the convulsions were of a different character from those which deceased had previously had. He described the kind of convulsions, and the position which the body of the deceased assumed during the convulsions, and Drs. Red and Knox testified as medical experts that convulsions of the character described by this witness were, in their opinion, produced by strychnine poison. The body of the deceased was exhumed about six months after his death, and a chemical analysis of the stomach failed to show any trace of strychnine.
The preponderance of the evidence is to the effect that Mrs. Mellott and her husband lived together amicably, though two witnesses testified to the contrary. Two witnesses, a Mrs. Kuhns and a child named Lena Stensil, testified that Mrs. Mellott came to Mrs. Kuhns’ home about a week before Mr. Mellott’s death, and sent the child to a drug store some five or six blocks from Mellott’s residence for 25 cents worth of strychnine, which the child purchased, and gave to Mrs. Mellott, who said she wanted it to kill cats with. Mrs. Mellott denied all of this, and denied that she had ever seen the child, Lena Stensil, before the former trial of this case, and the druggist from whom the child claimed to have bought the strychnine testified that he had no recollection of the matter. Shortly after the policy was taken out on the life of Mrs. Jeffers, and while she was living at Mrs. Mellott’s, she had a violent attack of vomiting, which came on just after she had drunk a toddy given her by Mrs. Mellott. Dr. Brumby, who attended Mrs. Jeffers during this attack, testified that she was suffering from an attack of cholera morbus. Drs. Red and Knox did not see the deceased during his last sickness, and their opinion as to the cause of his death is based entirely upon the character of the convulsions as described by the witness Sonnen, who had no technical knowledge nor experience of any kind with sickness of the character of which Mellott died, and who, as before stated, is contradicted by the statements of all the other witnesses who were with Mellott during the night of his death. Dr. McKay diagnosed Mellott’s disease as interitis, or Jacksonian epilepsy, due to the absorption of ptomaine or toxic materials from decomposition of the product of inflammation of the bowels, which produced the convulsions with which Mellott died. Dr. Knox testified that he did not think interitis ever produced Jacksonian epilepsy, and that he knew of no connection between the two diseases. Dr. Red further testified that convulsions could be produced by ptomaine poison caused by bowel trouble; that the physician in attendance on the deceased during his last sickness would be more apt to form a correct conclusion, all of these things coming under his own vision, than any doctor in the world could from a description of the man’s case; and that if this man was first attacked with convulsions on the 6th day of June, and the convulsions continued at various intervals to the 12th, and on the night of the 12th became more violent, and continued at more frequent intervals, until about 5 o’clock on the morning of the 13th, when the patient died in a convulsion, the character of the convulsions not having changed, he would not be so ready to come to the conclusion that the patient died from strychnine poison. He further testified that a man of ordinary constitution would not ordinarily live more than one or two hours after he began to have violent convulsions from strychnine. It was not shown that the deceased had any property or any income out of which he could pay the premiums on his policy, but at the time this policy was issued he gave up $4,000 insurance, which he had previously obtained. Several persons were with the deceased during the entire night on which he died, and there is no evidence that Mrs. Mellott gave him any medicine or anything at all at any time during the entire night, nor that anything was given him by any one, except the chloroform which was administered through the nostrils whenever a convulsion occurred.
The Court concluded that the evidence in this case amply sustains the verdict in favor of Mrs. Mellott.