Death of Drunken Driver Not “Accidental”

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has ruled that a drunk driver’s death was not "accidental" and therefore his surviving spouse could not collect accidental death benefits under an insurance policy.

The decedent’s blood alcohol level was fifty percent higher than the legal limit when he ran into the rear of a tractor trailer parked eight feet off a West Virginia road.  It was, of course, 3:49 a.m.

His wife sought "accidental death benefits" from an insurance policy provided by the decedent’s employer.  The policy provided coverage "if the insured dies ‘due to an accident.’  The Plan defined ‘accident’ as ‘an unexpected and sudden event which the insured does not  foresee.’ The Plan also provided that "ReliaStar Life has final discretionary  authority to determine all questions of eligibility and status and to interpret and construe the terms of this policy(ies) of insurance."  ERISA governed this case.

The Court reviewed the law and the facts and said this:  "In sum, we are hard pressed to say that a death must be deemed accidental where a decedent voluntarily gets behind the wheel after  voluntarily drinking too much. By choosing to drive under circumstances where his vision, motor control, and judgment were likely to  be impaired, the insured placed himself and fellow motorists in  harm’s way. To characterize harm flowing from such behavior as merely "accidental" diminishes the personal responsibility that state laws and the rules of the road require. This case, in short, affords us no basis for concluding that ReliaStar’s denial of benefits was unreasonable."

The Court went on to say this:  "Finally, we emphasize the boundaries of our holding. We do not  suggest that plan administrators can routinely deny coverage to  insureds who engage in purely negligent conduct or, for example, to  anyone that speeds. In fact, accident insurance is often purchased to  cover negligence at its most typical: Insureds seek "protection from  their own miscalculations and misjudgments." Wickman, 908 F.2d at 1088 (citations omitted). In this regard, the district court’s comparison of those who drive drunk to those who apply lipstick, fiddle with the
radio dial, or restrain a child is inapt. See Eckelberry, 402 F.Supp. 2d at 712. While these actions are hardly commendable driving habits, they do not generally rise to the level of crimes. Indeed, even though acts like speeding and (in some jurisdictions) driving while talking on  a cellular phone are illegal, none compare to driving while drunk, which has long been "widely known and widely publicized" to be both illegal and highly dangerous."

The case is Eckelberry v. ReliaStar Life Insurance Company,  No. 06-1020 (4th Cir. Nov. 17, 2006).  Read the opinion here.