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Alcohol is the decisive factor in a dispute over life insurance benefits

life insuranceAlcohol consumption is the decisive factor in a dispute over life insurance benefits.

Javier Lopez (“the Insured”) purchased an accidental death and dismemberment policy from the Insurer. The policy contained an alcohol exclusion provision excluding from coverage “any loss incurred as a result of . . . any injury sustained while under the influence of alcohol or any narcotic unless administered upon the advice of a physician.” Sometime during the night of July 31, 2011, the Insured died in a crash while operating a jet ski in Biscayne Bay. Citing the alcohol exclusion provision, the Insurer denied the Beneficiary’s claim for proceeds under the life insurance policy.  The Beneficiary then filed a lawsuit.

The Insured was last seen alive around 10:00 p.m. on July 31, 2011, when he left an island north of the Venetian Causeway in the Intracoastal Waterway. When the Insured failed to return, the Coast Guard was called and a search of the area located the jet ski at approximately 4:00 a.m. on the north side of the Julia Tuttle Causeway. The Insured’s body was found later that morning at approximately 7:44 a.m. on the south side of the causeway. The autopsy report indicated the cause of death was multiple blunt force traumatic injuries sustained in a front-end collision with a fixed object. The toxicology report indicated that the Insured’s blood alcohol level was .10, which is above the legal limit of .08 in Florida.

The Beneficiary’s expert agreed that the Insured was operating the jet ski with a blood alcohol level in excess of the legal limit and that the Insured collided with a fixed object. The Beneficiary’s expert, however, opined that the Insured’s blood alcohol level was not the sole cause of the accident because other factors contributed to the accident, including: (a) the Insured’s operation of the water craft in a negligent or reckless manner; (b) the dark nighttime conditions; and (c) the Insured’s failure to keep a watchful eye on his surroundings. Although not disputing that the Insured’s blood alcohol level contributed to the accident, the Beneficiary’s expert opined that “it does not mean [alcohol] was the cause of the accident.” (emphasis added). In the expert’s opinion, “for one to say alcohol was the cause of the accident is pure speculation.” (emphasis added).

The trial court agreed with the Beneficiary, and ordered the insurance company to pay the policy benefits to the beneficiary.  The insurance company then filed an appeal.

On appeal, the appellate court ruled in the insurance company’s favor.  The court reasoned that there was no disputed question of fact that alcohol played a role in the accident.  Given that it was undisputed that alcohol played a role in the subject accident, the appellate court had to decide whether the alcohol exclusion applied when the insured’s intoxication played a role in the cause of loss, or whether intoxication needed to be the sole cause for the exclusion to apply.

The appellate court went on to conclude that the alcohol exclusion applied in this case to bar the Beneficiary to recover proceeds under the life insurance policy.  The court reasoned that the insurer met its burden of showing a causal relationship between the insured’s accident and intoxication.  That was enough to trigger the exclusion and bar recovery.  The court reached that conclusion despite the possibility that other factors may have caused or contributed to the insurer’s death.

Of course, we all know it is dangerous to drink and drive, and one should never do it.  Intoxication can not only lead to the death of innocent victims, but it can also cause financial ruin to one’s family if planned life insurance proceeds are not paid.

With that said, please do not hesitate to contact our office to discuss any ongoing insurance dispute you may have and assess your legal rights.

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