Third Circuit Rejects Medication-Induced Suicide Exception to Policies’ Suicide Exclusions

In a recent unpublished decision, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a claim that the insured lacked the intention to kill herself because she suffered from medication-induced suicidality.

In Arena v. Riversource Life Ins. Co., No. 19-1043, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 28052 (3d Cir. Sept. 18, 2019), the insured purchased two life insurance policies. Each included similar suicide exclusion clauses, which generally provided that if the insured died by suicide within two years from the policy date, the insurer’s liability would be limited to the total premium paid.

The court described the insured as a successful attorney, who had recently come under some financial stress.  She saw a psychiatrist, who determined that she had a low risk of suicide, and presumably, to treat the insured’s anxiety and depression, he prescribed her two medications.  Over the next few weeks, the psychiatrist upped her dosages and added a third antidepressant.  Despite these efforts, the insured hung herself after fastening two of her husband’s leather belts together.  She died from her injuries nine days later.

The beneficiary filed a claim for benefits, which the insured denied citing the suicide exclusions.  The beneficiary sued in New Jersey state court for breach of contract.  The insurer removed the action to federal court and moved for summary judgment.  The beneficiary presented a report from a forensic expert who concluded that the insured could have suffered from a “medication-induced suicidality—a disorder that may cause a person to commit self-harm without intending or understanding the consequences of . . . her actions.” Thus, according to the beneficiary, the insured did not have the requisite intent for the suicide exclusions to apply.   The district court granted judgment for the insurer.  The beneficiary appealed, arguing that the insured lacked the necessary intent to commit suicide and that the lower court improperly shifted the burden of proof to the the beneficiary to prove that the insured did not intend to kill herself.

The appeals court rejected both arguments, stating that under New Jersey law, the insurer met its burden of showing that the insured intended to end her life, which can be satisfied with circumstantial evidence that the insured took actions that would result in her death.   The court provided instances where an insured can act intentionally without death being the intended result.  That wasn’t the case here.  Here, the insurer showed that the insured strung together belts and hung herself.  Thus death could be the only intended outcome. To avoid summary judgment the beneficiary had to put forward evidence to create a genuine dispute that the insured did not intend to commit suicide, which he had not done.

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