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High Court Denies Insurance Payout in Overdose : Law: State jurists say family cannot collect on a portion of coverage because man could have expected problems from cocaine use. The ruling draws a fine line for deaths caused by ‘accidental means.’

TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

The California Supreme Court held Monday that the Orange County survivors of a man who voluntarily ingested cocaine and died of an overdose cannot collect life insurance benefits intended to cover deaths by “accidental means.”

In a 5-2 decision, the court said that the death was not caused by “accidental means” because the deceased could have reasonably anticipated that death or great bodily injury would occur from ingesting a hazardous, illegal drug.

The ruling leaves California in the minority of states that distinguish insurance coverage for accidental death from death caused by “accidental means.” Under the latter definition, a fatality that results from an intentional action that could lead to death would not be covered, according to one of the attorneys on the case.

“Courts around the country have abolished the distinction because it is a distinction without meaning,” said Santa Ana attorney Richard A. Cohn. “To uphold the distinction simply allows the Supreme Court to choose when and where it wants to draw the line. . . .”

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The case was brought by the Santa Ana mother and sister of Michael P. Weil, who died at 32 of a cocaine overdose. Weil, an engineer in the semiconductor industry, was in San Francisco on business in 1985 and was staying at one of the city’s most elegant hotels when he ingested enough cocaine to kill himself.

Federal Kemper Life Assurance Company paid his mother and sister, Lola Brown Weil and Michelle Weil of Santa Ana, $100,000 as beneficiaries of the life insurance policy but refused to allow them to collect another $100,000 under an accidental death rider in the policy.

A trial court and a Court of Appeal ruled against the insurance company, which appealed the case to the state’s high court.

” . . . It is clear,” said Justice Ronald George, writing for the majority, “that California cases in a variety of factual settings have interpreted policies affording coverage for death effected through accidental means to preclude coverage for voluntary and intentional conduct that results in unintended death.”

Justices Stanley Mosk and Joyce Kennard, the most moderate members of the conservative court, dissented.

They argued that the survivors are entitled to collect under the policy because the overdose was accidental. “In all cases in which the insured’s act was more than negligent but not tantamount to suicide,” Mosk wrote, “the insured can reasonably expect to be covered.”


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