Cole v. Combined Ins. Co. of America, 83-246

Decision Date10 August 1984
Docket NumberNo. 83-246,83-246
Citation480 A.2d 178,125 N.H. 395
PartiesNelda COLE v. COMBINED INSURANCE COMPANY OF AMERICA.
CourtNew Hampshire Supreme Court

Wescott, Millham & Dyer, Laconia (Steven M. Latici, Laconia, on brief and orally), for plaintiff.

Sulloway, Hollis & Soden, Concord (Edward M. Kaplan, on brief and James E. Owers, Concord, on brief and orally), for defendant.

SOUTER, Justice.

Under Rule 34 of this court, the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire has sought our opinion on the following question of law:

"Under the law of New Hampshire, may a life insurance policy provision which purports to exclude payment of benefits when the death of the insured is the result of suicide be avoided by proof of the insured's insanity at the time of death?"

The parties have since agreed that the exclusion applies only when the insured was sane when he committed the acts that caused his death, and that proof of the insanity of the insured will defeat the exclusion and result in coverage. Therefore, in their briefs and arguments they have addressed only the issue of defining insanity in the context of the contract of insurance.

The parties do not dispute the facts. The defendant issued a group life insurance policy, under which the plaintiff's late husband was an insured and the plaintiff was a beneficiary. The policy excluded coverage "[i]n the event of the suicide of an Insured within two years from the effective date of the Insured's individual coverage." Within that period the insured killed himself by shooting. In the action to recover under the policy, the defendant relies on the quoted exclusion in denying coverage. The plaintiff claims that the exclusion is inapplicable because the decedent was insane at the time he caused his own death.

The definitional issues before us arise not from any ambiguity of the contract, but from its silence. Our obligation, therefore, is to supply reasonable definitions. Spaulding v. Concord Gen. Mut. Ins. Co., 122 N.H. 515, 516, 446 A.2d 1172, 1173 (1982). At the outset we should note that we accept as reasonable the parties' limited agreement that insanity as judged by some standard will defeat the exclusion. That has been the result in a body of cases from other jurisdictions, and it is consistent with this court's recent statements about the nature of suicide, which we take as our starting point here.

In McLaughlin v. Sullivan, 123 N.H. 335, 461 A.2d 123 (1983), we spoke of the common understanding of suicide as a deliberate and intentional act. When contracting parties have not otherwise defined a term, common usage controls. Baker v. McCarthy, 122 N.H. 171, 175, 443 A.2d 138, 140 (1982). We conclude, therefore, that the policy before us should be read to define suicide as deliberate and intentional. This definition implies that one who commits suicide within the meaning of the terms of the policy must understand the natural physical consequences of his act to produce death and must have the capacity to choose effectively to do or not to do the act. Since insanity in the present context is thought of as a mental condition inconsistent with the capacity for suicide, the characteristics of insanity should at the least negate the possibility of one or the other of the elements of understanding and choice that suicide presupposes.

We take this position as our standard for accepting or rejecting the tests the parties have urged us to adopt. The cases they have cited present varieties and combinations of three basic alternative descriptions of the insane mind as lacking the capacity to appreciate physical consequences of the act, lacking the capacity to appreciate the moral character of the act, or lacking the capacity for choice to act or not.

Defining insanity as an incapacity to appreciate the physical nature and consequences of the act that produced death has had a long history in insurance litigation. E.g., Dean v. American Mutual Life Ins. Co., 86 Mass. (4 Allen) 96 (1862); Borradaile v. Hunter, 134 Eng.Rep. 715 (1843). The desirability of its adoption does not require extended argument. If the mind cannot understand that the finger is pulling the trigger or that the bullet will pierce the skull, there can be no intent to kill by these physical means.

The second alternative definition of insanity, as an incapacity to appreciate the moral character of the act, has had a history nearly as long. The cases commonly trace its source in American law to the statement in Life Insurance Company v. Terry, 82 U.S. (15 Wall.) 580, 591, 21 L.Ed. 236 (1872), that if the insured causes his death "when his reasoning faculties are so far impaired that he is not able to understand the moral character ... of the act he is about to commit" the death is not by the decedent's own hand within the meaning of a policy exclusion. The plaintiff urges us to adopt this definition and cites authority from a minority of jurisdictions that have done so. E.g., Garmon v. General American Life Ins. Co., 624 S.W.2d 42 (Mo.App.1981) (holding proof of such moral incapacity sufficient to defeat the exclusion); Hathaway's Adm'r v. National Life Ins. Co., 48 Vt. 335 (1875) (apparently holding that proof of such moral incapacity is necessary though not sufficient to defeat the exclusion).

To apply this definition, a finder of fact must first conclude that the act had a "moral character" that the decedent was unable to appreciate. If the definition is to be applied consistently from case to case, there must be a consensus among finders of fact about this moral character. When the Supreme Court of the United States announced the...

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7 cases
  • Appeal of Plantier
    • United States
    • New Hampshire Supreme Court
    • May 23, 1985
    ...or her profession and demonstrates that the physician is morally incompetent to conduct that practice. Cf. Cole v. Combined Ins. Co. of America, 125 N.H. 395, 480 A.2d 178 (1984). We find no merit in the doctor's argument that the board may not assert jurisdiction over a physician on the gr......
  • Maloney v. Badman
    • United States
    • New Hampshire Supreme Court
    • December 20, 2007
    ...ed. 2002) (suicide is "the act ... of taking one's own life voluntarily and intentionally"); cf. Cole v. Combined Ins. Co. of America, 125 N.H. 395, 396, 480 A.2d 178 (1984) (definition of suicide as deliberate and intentional "implies that one who commits suicide ... must understand the na......
  • Maloney v. Badman
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    • New Hampshire Supreme Court
    • December 20, 2007
    ... ... Cole v. Combined Ins. Co. of America, 125 N.H. 395, 396, 480 ... ...
  • Reinking v. Philadelphia American Life Ins. Co.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit
    • August 17, 1990
    ... ... of North America v. Aufenkamp, 291 Md. 495, 435 A.2d 774, 779 (1981) (noting the "generally ... See Cole, 480 A.2d at 179. The decision does not have to be impulsive in the ... Combined Ins. Co. of America, 125 N.H. 395, 480 A.2d 178, 179 (1984), that there ... ...
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