The Meaning of 'Intent' in Insurance Law.

Author:Killian, Gene

* If you're involved in the legal business for any length of time, every once in a while, you'll come across a case in which the facts are so horrible, and the result so seemingly wrongheaded, that you can't help but feel that our entire system has failed. A recent decision from the Third Circuit, Arena v. RiverSource Life Insurance Co., sadly falls into that category.

Christine Arena was a successful in-house attorney for Time Warner. She had a wonderful family, with four healthy children, and was active in the Catholic Church and in her community, including serving as the President of a charitable foundation.

Because of some issues with anxiety, possibly caused by financial stress, Christine made an appointment to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist prescribed Klonopin and Zoloft. These medications have the potential for serious side effects, including depression and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. There are also concerns that Zoloft can lead to anxiety and impulsivity. Christine's anxiety didn't abate, so the psychiatrist increased the dosage, and added another antidepressant to the mix.

Christine continued to work, but not long after being prescribed the drugs, and when her family was not home, she took two of her husband's leather belts, wrapped them around her neck, and hanged herself. She was discovered by her eleven-year-old daughter. She died nine days later. The police report listed the incident as a suicide attempt, and the medical examiner listed her manner of death as suicide, although neither the police nor the M.E. made any inquiry into her state of mind.

Christine had two life insurance policies from RiverSource, but both contained a suicide exclusion clause. The clause in one of the policies, for example, provided: "If the insured, whether sane or insane, dies by suicide within two years from the Policy Date, our liability is limited to an amount equal to the total premiums paid." The other policy contained a similar clause.

The insurance company denied coverage, based on the suicide exclusions. Christine's husband, Gianfranco, then filed suit in state court, and the insurance company promptly removed the case to federal court (of course), which is generally considered to be a more hospitable forum for carriers.

The federal court granted summary judgment to the insurance company, and the ruling has now been affirmed by the appeals court. This is so, despite the fact that New Jersey law requires, as an element of suicide...

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