Monday, May 20, 2002
Fatal Injury During Sex Act Was Not ‘Self-Inflicted,’ Insurer Must Pay Benefits, Ninth Circuit Rules
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A woman whose husband died of autoerotic asphyxiation is entitled to recover benefits under an accidental injury and death insurance policy, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
AIG Life Insurance Co. was wrong when it concluded that Gerald Alan Padfield’s 1999 death was excluded from coverage as being a result of “suicide” or “self-inflicted injury,” Judge William Fletcher wrote for a divided panel.
Judge Thomas G. Nelson concurred. Senior Judge Edward Leavy dissented, arguing that while the suicide exclusion didn’t apply, the self-inflicted injury exclusion did.
Jorita Padfield sued under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. after the insurer rejected her claim for benefits under the policy, a benefit of her husband’s employment with Raytheon Systems Co. Both sides moved for summary judgment.
Padfield’s attorney, Beverly Hills sole practitioner Charles J. Fleishman, presented evidence that Gerald Padfield had disappeared after leaving for the cleaners.
He was discovered three days later, naked from the waist down on the floor of his van, along with numerous sexual devices, pornographic materials and a bottle containing chlorohexanol, an industrial solvent.
One end of a necktie was secured around his neck, the other end was tied to the sliding door hinge above him. Authorities concluded that he had engaged in the practice of limiting the flow of oxygen to the brain during masturbation in an attempt to heighten sexual pleasure, and called his death the “accidental” result of autoerotic asphyxiation.
The death certificate listed the death as “hanging.” The widow, who had filed a missing person report, said she knew about her husband’s sexual devices but thought he had quit using them, and that there were no indications he was suicidal.
The plaintiff also offered expert testimony that the practice in which her husband engaged results in a relatively small number of unintended deaths. This is usually a result “of equipment malfunction, errors in the placement of the noose or ligature, or other mistakes,” according to DSM-IV, the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson held that the fatal injury was self-inflicted within the meaning of the policy exclusion and granted summary judgment in favor of AIG, which was represented by Huey P. Cotton and Rickee S. Stewart of the Los Angeles firm of Cozen & Cotton.
But Fletcher, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said summary judgment should have been granted the plaintiff, because neither exclusion applied as a matter of law.
Federal courts applying ERISA, Fletcher explained, treat a death as suicide if the insured subjectively intended his or her own death or if he or she engaged in conduct which was “substantially certain” or “substantially likely” to end in death.
Padfield, the judge said, apparently had engaged in previous autoerotic adventures and survived, and there was no evidence he intended otherwise on this occasion. And his death cannot be viewed as substantially likely or certain, based on “the uniform medical and behavioral science evidence indicating that autoerotic activity ordinarily has a nonfatal outcome,” Fletcher wrote.
As for the self-inflicted injury exclusion, Fletcher noted a split of authority in cases presenting the issue in other states. A 1981 ruling of a Texas intermediate appeals court found for the beneficiary, while the Fifth Circuit in 1992 ruled for the insurer, applying Louisiana law.
The Eighth Circuit ruled in 1981 that the exclusion applied under Iowa law, but held in 1999 that it did not apply under Minnesota law. The courts in the Louisiana and Iowa cases reasoned that “partial strangulation” during autoerotic asphyxiation was a distinct, self-inflicted injury.
But the Minnesota ruling is significant, Fletcher said, because Minnesota interprets insurance policies under a “plain and ordinary meaning” rule that “parallels” the ERISA standard. And applying that standard, it cannot be said that Padfield died of self-inflicted injury, because the physical consequences he intended were not “injuries,” the judge said.
“All of the evidence indicates that if the events of February 9, 1999 had gone as Mr. Padfield intended, he would have experienced a temporary deprivation of oxygen, a euphoric light-headedness from the exposure to the industrial solvent, and an intensified sexual experience,” he wrote. “His oxygen level would then have been restored, his euphoric state would have subsided, and he would have returned home uninjured.”
None of those consequences, the judge concluded, is an “injury” according to the ordinary meaning of the word.
Leavy argued in dissent that the “act of tying a necktie around [the] neck with the intent to restrict the flow of oxygen to [the] brain” is an intentionally self-inflicted injury within the meaning of the policy exclusion.
The Texas and Minnesota cases relied on by the majority, he noted, applied state law rather than ERISA, while at least four U.S. District Court rulings applying ERISA in the last few years have gone the other way.
The case is Padfield v. AIG Life Insurance Company, 00-57054.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company