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Fatal Motorcycle Crash Under Influence of Alcohol and Marijuana Not an Accident Under ERISA Plan

Fatal Motorcycle Crash Under Influence of Alcohol and Marijuana Not an Accident Under ERISA Plan

Clark v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 2013 WL 3005289 (N.D. Ga. June 8, 2013)

ERISA and Life Insurance News
(December 2013)

Clark's husband, Jeffrey Clark, was killed when he rode a motorcycle with no helmet on a curvy two-lane road, left the roadway, was ejected from his motorcycle, and struck a tree. At the time of the crash, Mr. Clark had a blood alcohol content ("BAC") over twice the legal limit in Georgia and Colorado (where the crash occurred), and tested positive for THC, the principal psychoactive constituent of marijuana.

LINA determined that benefits were not payable under the ERISA-governed accidental death Plan at issue, and explained that the Plan pays benefits for bodily injuries caused by an accident directly and from no other causes, and interpreted "accident" to mean "a sudden, unforeseeable, external event." Because every state criminalizes DUI to protect the public, LINA reasoned that all drivers have notice of drunk driving consequences, and no reasonable person would be unaware of the danger of operating a vehicle while intoxicated. Because serious injury and death are likely risks of driving drunk, and the combination of a high BAC and THC could only increase the risk, LINA determined Mr. Clark's death was not an accident under the Plan.

Clark appealed, emphasized that Mr. Clark "was an experienced motorcycle rider [and] was a frequent traveler of this roadway and very familiar with its nuances," and speculated that the circumstances of the motorcycle crash "lead to the conclusion Mr. Clark was confronted with an unexpected, unforeseen, and unanticipated obstacle in the roadway, to which he was reacting and which caused the motorcycle to run off the road and crash." No additional information was submitted to support this argument, and LINA upheld its determination on appeal.

Clark sued to recover accidental death benefits, and the parties filed cross-motions for judgment on the administrative record. The district court applied the "multi-step framework" used by courts in the Eleventh Circuit when reviewing an ERISA claim decision.

First, the court discussed whether LINA's determination was wrong from a de novo perspective, and concluded: "Although the Court [was] sympathetic to the pain [Ms.] Clark has suffered as a result of [Mr. Clark's] unexpected death, the Court [did] not disagree with LINA's decision."

Clark argued that LINA's determination was de novo wrong because, she alleged, LINA did not properly consider all facts in the administrative record and LINA unfairly interpreted the term "accident" in the group policy. Clark also argued that LINA should have included an alcohol exclusion in the group policy. The court rejected these arguments, holding that:

  • LINA properly applied the federal common law standard set forth in Wickman v. Northwestern Nat'l Ins. Co., 908 F.2d 1077 (1st Cir. 1990), which has been adopted by the Eleventh Circuit and the Northern District of Georgia. See Buce v. Allianz Life Ins. Co., 247 F.3d 1133 (11th Cir. 2001); McAfee v. Transamerica Occ. Life Ins. Co., 106 F.Supp.2d 1331 (N.D. Ga. 2000), aff'd sub nom., 252 F.3d 1362 (11th Cir. 2001);
  • Mr. Clark's subjective expectation when he purchased the policy (the relevant inquiry) was not indicated by the facts;
  • "[E]ven if the inquiry were limited to [Mr. Clark's] subjective expectations just prior to the crash, any expectation that he might have had that he would not crash his motorcycle and be killed under the circumstances of this case would have been unreasonable";
  • A reasonable person in Mr. Clark's shoes would have viewed death or injury as "highly likely to occur as a result of riding a motorcycle under similar facts";
  • Clark "failed to carry her burden of showing that something other than [Mr. Clark's] impairment and diminished control of the motorcycle caused [Mr. Clark's] skid marks";
  • "In the absence of other circumstances explaining what caused [Mr. Clark] to crash, [Mr. Clark's] BAC and drug test results are important factors";
  • Clark "never presented evidence to LINA that [Mr. Clark's] BAC and drug-test results could not have contributed to the cause of the crash";
  • LINA could not address arguments Clark never made; and
  • Specific evidence by a toxicologist or forensic consultant regarding Mr. Clark's level of intoxication was not necessary in light of the facts of this case.

Although the court concluded that LINA's decision was legally correct, and thus could have ended its inquiry there, the court went on to evaluate the reasonableness of LINA's decision and found that, "[b]ased on the information available to LINA at the time it denied Clark's initial claim and appeal, its decision was reasonable." Further, the court held that Clark did not present "any evidence that LINA's decision is the result of self-interest; rather, the record shows that its decision was based on an unbiased consideration of the facts and the policy at issue. Therefore, there was not a conflict that rendered LINA's denial of benefits arbitrary and capricious."

As a result, the court granted judgment to LINA.

Click here to view the full December 2013 Edition of the ERISA and Life Insurance News.

H. Sanders Carter
T (404) 962-1015
F (404) 962-1220
Kenton J. Coppage
T (404) 962-1065
F (404) 962-1256
Dorothy H. Cornwell
T (404) 962-1096
F (404) 962-1246

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