908 F.2d 1077 (1st Cir. 1990), 89-2030, Wickman v. Northwestern Nat. Ins. Co.

Docket Nº:89-2030.
Citation:908 F.2d 1077
Party Name:Mary Jane WICKMAN, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. NORTHWESTERN NATIONAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant, Appellee.
Case Date:July 20, 1990
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
 
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Page 1077

908 F.2d 1077 (1st Cir. 1990)

Mary Jane WICKMAN, Plaintiff, Appellant,

v.

NORTHWESTERN NATIONAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant, Appellee.

No. 89-2030.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

July 20, 1990

Heard May 9, 1990.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Richard L. Neumeier with whom Parker, Coulter, Daley & White, Boston, Mass., was on brief, for plaintiff, appellant.

Edward S. Rooney, Jr., with whom Lyne, Woodworth & Evarts, Boston, Mass., was on brief, for defendant, appellee.

Before SELYA and CYR, Circuit Judges, and ROSENN, [*] Senior Circuit Judge.

ROSENN, Senior Circuit Judge.

This appeal calls upon us to examine the emerging jurisprudence of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) (29 U.S.C. Sec. 1001 et seq.), and presents a question of first impression under the Act concerning the interpretation of life insurance contracts. The issue arises out of the beneficiary's claim for accidental death and dismemberment benefits (AD & D) under a group policy issued by Northwestern National Life Insurance Company (Northwestern) insuring her husband, Paul Wickman (Wickman). Northwestern rejected the spouse's claim, asserting that Wickman's death, which resulted when he fell forty to fifty feet from a bridge, was not accidental.

The widow sued Northwestern in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts to recover AD & D benefits. 1 By consent of the parties, a magistrate tried the case and ruled that Wickman's death was not accidental. On appeal, the widow challenges this conclusion, as well as the earlier ruling that ERISA and not state law governed the insurance contract. We affirm.

I.

A.

On July 11, 1984, at approximately 4:00 P.M. Michael Blanchette was driving southbound on Route 495 in Middleborough, Massachusetts. As he approached the bridge near the overpass of Route 105 he observed an automobile, later identified as Wickman's, parked in the break-down lane, and Wickman approximately thirty feet

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away. He saw Wickman standing on the outside of the bridge's guardrail, holding on to it with only his right hand. Blanchette turned his eyes to check on traffic, and upon looking back he saw Wickman no longer holding on to the rail but free-falling to the railroad tracks below.

At the point from which Wickman had been first observed, the bridge had been erected forty to fifty feet above the railroad tracks below. About thirty-five yards further on, the bridge stands ninety feet above the tracks. To reach that point, Wickman would have had to walk head on into high speed traffic.

The bridge guardrail is three to four feet high and is constructed of intermittent vertical concrete posts crossed by three continuous metal horizontal railings. No area or lip extends outside the railing on the bridge for walking or standing. An edge of a steel support beam about one foot below the bridge roadway projects outward for a few inches. The magistrate ultimately concluded, "It is not reasonable to believe that Mr. Wickman either fell over or through the guardrail, or otherwise came to be on the outside through mistake or inadvertence. Clearly it would take a conscious effort to climb over or through the guardrail on the bridge."

Upon seeing Wickman fall, Blanchette pulled over, stopped a tow truck and requested the driver to obtain police and ambulance assistance. Blanchette then ran down the embankment to administer first aid to Wickman. Blanchette treated him for shock and asked him several questions. Wickman told Blanchette his name, occupation, and that he had a family. Blanchette asked Wickman in "two or three different ways" why he had jumped, but Wickman failed to respond.

Blanchette eventually left Wickman and flagged down Trooper Condon, who called for an ambulance and then attended to Wickman. Condon also asked Wickman some general questions, and obtained responses to all of his questions except as to what had happened. Shortly thereafter an ambulance arrived and transported Wickman to St. Luke's Hospital.

Upon admission, Trudy Dooley, the hospital emergency admissions secretary, asked Wickman the standard admissions questions, including who were his next of kin. Though Wickman responded to questions such as name and address, he would not provide at first the next of kin information. Eventually after some prodding, he told Dooley that "they don't care," and "it doesn't matter." When asked about his religion, his initial response also was "it doesn't matter." When Dooley asked what had happened, he told her "I jumped off."

Mrs. Wickman soon arrived at St. Luke's, but by the time she got there Wickman had been heavily medicated. She spoke with him, touched and kissed him, but evidently he did not recognize her for he kept saying, "Where's my wife?" and "I love my wife and I love my children." Soon after, Wickman went into cardiac arrest and was transferred to Brockton Hospital where he died later that evening.

At the Brockton Hospital, Dr. Howard Carpenter, a medical examiner, who had been advised that Wickman had jumped, issued the initial death certificate. He stated the cause of death as suicide. Shortly thereafter, a nurse's note from St. Luke's was brought to Carpenter's attention. The note read, "admission to E.R. post-fall from 50' bridge to rail track, awake oriented X 3, states 'fell.' " Exhibit P8. As Dr. Carpenter explained, oriented times three means oriented to person, place, thing, and time; "[h]e knows who he is, where he is, and what time it is, what day it is." On the basis of this note and no other information, Dr. Carpenter issued an amended certificate, fixing the cause of death as "fall from 90 foot bridge." Dr. Carpenter claims that this is the only death certificate he ever changed in the more than five thousand which he had prepared during his time in the coroner's office.

B.

At the time of his death, Wickman was covered by a Northwestern issued group life and AD & D policy held by his employer, Dexter Corporation (Dexter). The policy

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named his wife as the beneficiary; it provided for payment of life insurance benefits for all causes of death and AD & D benefits if death was accidental. The accidental death provisions provided that an accident was "an unexpected, external, violent and sudden event." The policy also specifically noted that it did not pay benefits if the loss was either directly or indirectly caused by "suicide or intentionally self-inflicted injury, whether ... sane or insane."

The employer Dexter and the employees paid the premiums on the policy to Northwestern. Wickman became eligible for the insurance as a member of the class of Dexter "active full time employees regularly working 32 hours or more per week in a permanent position." As the party ultimately responsible for premium payments, Dexter held title to the policies.

Mrs. Wickman submitted claims to Northwestern under both the accidental death and life insurance policy provisions. She received a benefit payment of $105,000 on the life insurance policy. Following its investigation, Northwestern denied her claim for an equal amount under the accidental death provisions. The Company wrote to claimant's counsel:

The policy defines accident as an unexpected, external, violent and sudden event. It further provides that we do not pay benefits for loss directly or indirectly caused by suicide or intentionally inflicted injury whether sane or insane.

According to the police report the Insured's wife stated that her husband had been seeing a psychiatrist and had talked about suicide. The Death Certificate also indicates that the cause of death was suicide. Because the Accidental Death provision of the policy excludes payment of benefits for suicide, we do not believe Accidental Death Benefits are payable.

Exhibit D1.

In her suit, the spouse asserted a claim for breach of contract and requested a jury trial. She alleged that Wickman had not committed suicide, but ended up on the wrong side of the guardrail when he became disoriented while looking for help after his car broke down. His car had been retrieved by his daughter from the police the day after his death. She drove the car away without any difficulty, and a subsequent mechanical inspection found no defect. The widow also asserted that her husband, a devout Catholic, would not commit suicide, and that he was in the midst of planning a vacation. Finally, she alleged that he showed no signs of depression, and had never contemplated suicide.

The district court, upon Northwestern's motion, dismissed the complaint, holding that the insurance policy was a part of the plan governed by ERISA, and as such ERISA preempted any state law claims. The court allowed plaintiff leave to amend, and she amended the complaint to add claims under ERISA. The court, in reliance upon its earlier decision, summarily dismissed the common law claim. The parties agreed that there was no right to a jury trial in an action for benefits brought under ERISA and consented to a trial before a United States Magistrate.

After a full trial, the magistrate performed a de novo review of the facts and determined that Wickman's death was not accidental. He denied the widow's claim for AD & D benefits. He found that Wickman had intentionally climbed over the guardrail, and that in so doing he was "substantially certain" that he would suffer significant injuries, if not death. Specifically, "the court [found] that Mr. Wickman knew or should have known that serious bodily injury or death was a probable consequence substantially likely to occur as a result of his volitional act of placing himself outside of the guardrail and hanging on with one hand." Id. at 67-68. The court held as a matter of law...

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