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Taylor v. John Hancock Ins. Co.





APPEAL from the Appellate Court for the Third District; — heard in that court on appeal from the County Court of Macon County; the Hon. GUS T. GREANIAS, Judge, presiding.


Rehearing denied May 20, 1957.

The plaintiffs sued in the circuit court of Macon County to recover death benefits allegedly due under an insurance policy. It was stipulated that plaintiff Bertha Taylor was the named beneficiary in the policy. The circuit court denied a recovery, but this was reversed by the Appellate Court. (9 Ill. App.2d 330.) We have allowed the defendant's petition for leave to appeal.

The insured, Frank Owen, was burned to death in a fire which he and two others deliberately set in order to collect fire insurance. The issue is whether there is coverage under the policy, one paragraph of which provides as follows: "Death benefits will be paid if death occurs as result of bodily injury sustained solely through external, violent and accidental means, directly and independently of all other causes." The dispute concerns whether death occurred through "accidental means . . . independently of all other causes."

The parties stipulated as follows regarding the circumstances surrounding the insured's death: "Frank Owen and John Owen (no relation to each other) prior to April 17, 1954, agreed to burn John Owen's residence at 932 N. Lowber St., Decatur, Ill. for the purpose of collecting fire insurance thereon. Between 2:00 and 2:30 A.M. o'clock, April 17, 1954 they and a third man, named Logan Brooks, entered the house for the purpose of carrying out their agreement; that previously John Owen had agreed to give Frank Owen $500.00 of the fire insurance money when collected from the fire insurance company. A gas furnace in the living room was used in heating the home and the pilot light was burning at the time of the explosion. John Owen and Logan Brooks had carried two 5 gallon cans full of gasoline into the house sometime during the evening of April 16, 1954 to be used to burn the house. After entering the house around 2:00 to 2:30 A.M. John Owen, Frank Owen and Logan Brooks poured the 10 gallons of gasoline on the floor and furniture in the house. After spreading it Frank Owen and Logan Brooks went outside the house and Frank Owen went out on the porch and asked John Owen if he could have some of the bed clothing in the bedroom. John Owen said he could and John Owen and Frank Owen reentered the house, which was not on fire. John Owen stopped in the kitchen and Frank Owen went into the bedroom to obtain the bed clothes, and out of John Owen's sight.

"While Frank Owen was in the bedroom obtaining the bed clothes there was an explosion and fire resulting from the act of spreading the gasoline and due to the ignition of the fumes of the gasoline. The house was rapidly consumed by the fire. John Owen got out of the House, but Frank Owen, the insured was caught in the flames, incinerated and died in the bedroom. Frank Owen and Logan Brooks wilfully and maliciously spread the gasoline in furtherance of the plan of setting fire to the building to obtain the insurance thereon."

The defendant seeks to defeat a recovery on two grounds: (1) there was no coverage under the insurance contract; (2) it would be against the public policy of this State to permit a recovery.

The coverage question, pertaining to whether the insured's death occurred solely through "accidental means * * * independently of all other causes," is discussed at length in the Appellate Court opinion, the conclusions of which we adopt. In Illinois, the courts have adopted a liberal attitude in their interpretation of this common insurance provision. In effect, "accidental means" has been held to be synonymous with "accidental result," and defined as something which happens by chance or fortuitously, without intention or design, and which is unexpected, unusual and unforeseen. (See, e.g., Yates v. Bankers Life and Casualty Co. 415 Ill. 16; Rodgers v. Reserve Life Ins Co. 8 Ill. App.2d 551.) While it is true the parties intended to burn the house, they obviously did not intend the fire to start when it did. To this extent it was "accidental" as the term has heretofore been interpreted.

But even though there is coverage under the terms of the policy, the defendant still insists that it would be against public policy to permit a recovery. This is predicated on the fact that the insured was engaged at the time in an unlawful act.

In considering this issue it must be borne in mind that there is no evidence that the policy was procured in contemplation of the crime or that the beneficiary was guilty of any wrongdoing.

The authorities are divided on the question (see 23 A.L.R.2d 1105), with perhaps a majority favoring the beneficiary. (See Vance on Insurance, sec. 190; Appleman, Insurance Law and Practice, sec. 511; Couch, Cyclopedia of Insurance Law, sec. 1236.) It is a matter of first impression for us.

As noted, there is nothing in this contract of insurance which bars a recovery. The policy does not contain a so-called "violation of law" clause, and if recovery is to be denied it must be because of some overriding public policy. However, we find no such established policy in Illinois, nor do we believe any should be recognized now. Indeed, in analogous situations this court has allowed a recovery. See, for example, Grand Legion of Illinois, Select Knights of America v. Beaty, 224 Ill. 346 (insured committed suicide) and Collins v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. 232 Ill. 37 (insured executed for a crime.)

Reasons commonly assigned by those courts which refuse a recovery are that one should not be entitled to profit from his own wrong and that to permit a recovery would encourage crime. We are not persuaded by this reasoning. For in a case like this, where the beneficiary is innocent of any wrongdoing, there is, of course, no violation of the maxim that one should not be benefited by his own wrong. And the notion that a denial of a recovery would serve as a deterrent to crime does ...

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