For many reasons, some of the toughest cases to litigate involve the application of the suicide exclusion.

There is a growing body of evidence challenging suicide exclusion determinations.

Here is the recent case of Collins v. Unum Life Insurance Co., 2016 WL 2753862, __ F.Supp.3d __ (May 6, 2016). This case walks you through arguments to win the validity of suicide exclusions under state law, and summarizes the facts needed to establish “sanity” at the time of death. (Kudos to my friend David Constine and his law firm for some scholarly work in this area.)

FACTS: Collins, a former Navy Seal for 17 years, took his own life. At the time of his death Collins had ERISA-governed life benefits, which included a suicide exclusion. Plaintiff argued the suicide exclusion was invalid under Virginia law. That law states that a suicide exclusion shall be valid if liability is limited to an insured “who, whether sane or insane, dies by his own act.” Plaintiff contended the suicide exclusion was invalid because it failed to include the “sane or insane” language.

HELD: Unum’s Motion for Summary judgment GRANTED.

  1. “ERISA has no bearing on this question of validity as suicide exclusions fall under the so-called ‘insurance exception’ to ERISA preemption…and state law applies.” Op. at 19.
  2. “Because the ERISA policy at issue gives the insurer discretionary authority, …it is the duty of the insurer in the first instance to construe the policy language. This Court merely determines if the insurer’s interpretation was reasonable.” Op. at 23.
  3. The Fourth Circuit “[does] not require suicide exclusions to contain any ‘magic’ words in order to be valid.” Op. at 19-20.
  4. “‘[Generally] as long as the policy provided sufficient notice of exclusion—and the exclusion was limited to two years—it was valid under the statute.” Op. at 21.
  5. The punctuation in the Virginia statute “suggests that the phrase ‘whether sane or insane’ is non-essential to the meaning of the term suicide and need not be ‘express’ within the exclusion.” Op. at 21-22.
  6. Recent decisions “in ERISA cases…have upheld as reasonable plan administrators’ determinations that the term ‘suicide’ meant any non-accidental, self-inflicted death even though the suicide exclusions at issue did not include some variant of the phrase “whether sane or insane.” Op. at 26.
  7. What is evidence of “sane at death”? Collins “knew the consequences of his actions: He knew that he was taking his own life. Additionally, in both the text to his wife and email to Mr. Mansfield, Mr. Collins expressed regret for his actions.” Op. at 31.