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Sixth Circuit: Death by Reckless Driving Is Subject to Accidental Death Policy’s Crime Exclusion

In Fulkerson v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am., No. 21-3367, __F.4th__, 2022 WL 1829128 (6th Cir. June 3, 2022), Defendant-Appellant Unum Life Insurance Company of America appealed the district court’s award of $100,000 in accidental death benefits to Plaintiff Judy Fulkerson, the beneficiary of an ERISA-governed life insurance policy. The insured died from injuries sustained while driving recklessly and roughly 20-40 miles over the 60 mile per hour speed limit. The AD&D policy excludes accidental death benefits for “any accidental losses caused by, contributed to by, or resulting from … an attempt to commit or commission of a crime.” Unum denied AD&D benefits on the basis that the crime exclusion applied to the insured’s death. The district court ruled in favor of Fulkerson, the insured’s mother. Unum appealed.

The Sixth Circuit considered the following question: is reckless driving a “crime” within the meaning of the exclusion? The court turned to the policy’s text to answer this question. Because the policy does not expressly answer this question the court turned to dictionaries to determine the term’s plain meaning. Considering multiple dictionary definitions, the “lexiconic sources indicate that the plain meaning of ‘crime’ is ‘an illegal act for which someone can be punished by the government.’” Further, the court’s reading of “crime” is consistent with the state laws regulating the insured’s conduct. Driving recklessly is a violation of Ohio law (a misdemeanor) and other states’ laws support that the ordinary meaning of “crime” unambiguously includes reckless driving. Because the insured’s reckless driving would constitute a crime in every state, this is persuasive evidence that the plain, ordinary meaning of crime includes reckless driving.

Additionally, the court found that the contemporary common usage of the term “reckless driving” further supports its view. The court searched the Corpus of Contemporary American English for the phrase “reckless driving” as used between 1990 and 2018, which yielded over 300 results. Most of the entries recounted instances in which some manner of prosecution occurred, where individuals either were “charged,” “convicted,” and/or “sentenced” for reckless driving. Because reckless driving is widely understood to be an illegal act punishable by law, the insured’s conduct amounts to a “crime.” The court found no basis for coverage under the accidental death policy.

The court rejected the plaintiff’s arguments that the term “crime” is ambiguous, that earlier Sixth Circuit cases support her reading of the crime exclusion, and that the court’s decision will result in the denial of coverage for anyone who commits any illegal act subject to any type of punishment. While reading “crime” in broad fashion may lead to unfair results where an insurer invokes the exclusion for seldomly enforced offenses, that “is a point for another day.” The court’s holding is narrow: “the plain and ordinary meaning of crime includes reckless driving.”


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*Please note that this blog is a summary of a reported legal decision and does not constitute legal advice. This blog has not been updated to note any subsequent change in status, including whether a decision is reconsidered or vacated. The case above was handled by other law firms, but if you have questions about how the developing law impacts your ERISA benefit claim, the attorneys at Roberts Disability Law, P.C. may be able to advise you so please contact us.

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