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Russell v. Metropolitan Life Insurance





Appeal from the Circuit Court of De Witt County; the Hon. William C. Calvin, Judge, presiding.


Plaintiff, Sheryl Jaco Russell, as administrator of the estate of Gerald L. Jaco, deceased, brought suit in the circuit court of DeWitt County against defendant, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, seeking recovery of certain benefits under a group policy issued by defendant. The policy was held by decedent's employer, Caterpillar Tractor Company. The decedent was an insured, and his estate was his beneficiary. Defendant paid plaintiff her claim of $15,000 under the regular life insurance provision of the policy. The suit was for an additional benefit in the sum of $14,000, payable if the death resulted "solely through accidental means." After both parties moved for summary judgment, the trial court granted summary judgment for plaintiff in the sum of $14,000 on September 4, 1981. Defendant has appealed. We affirm.

Plaintiff's claim arose from Part III of the policy which provided for additional benefits for an insured employee who sustained "bodily injuries solely through accidental means." Excluded from the foregoing coverage were deaths "caused or contributed to by disease" and those "caused by or resulting from intentional self destruction or intentionally self-inflicted injury." The parties have stipulated that at the time of decedent's death he suffered from alcoholism which was a "disease" within the meaning of Part III.

The other material facts before the court at the time of the hearing on the motion are also not in dispute. Gerald Jaco, the decedent, was found dead in his truck on December 10, 1979. Next to the body was an open bottle of vodka. An analysis of his blood showed the presence of 0.475 percent alcohol. The parties stipulated that 0.45 percent or greater of alcohol in the blood is considered lethal and that decedent's death resulted from the consumption of a lethal quantity of alcohol. Sheryl Jaco Russell, plaintiff, stated in her deposition that decedent had been an alcoholic during the 3 1/2 years of their marriage and that on occasion she would find him unconscious in his truck or in the basement. In 1979, decedent had received treatment and counseling for alcoholism at Proctor Hospital in Peoria and at St. Mary's Hospital in Decatur. Late in 1979, decedent received counseling for alcoholism and depressive neurosis from the DeWitt County Human Resource Center.

Defendant has withdrawn with prejudice its defense that decedent's death was caused by or resulted from intentional self-destruction or intentionally self-inflicted injury within the meaning of the exclusionary provisions of Part III of the policy. We agree with the trial court the information before the court also refuted as a matter of law defendant's claim, under another exclusionary provision of Part III, that the death was "caused or contributed to by disease."

In Marsh v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. (1979), 70 Ill. App.3d 790, 796, 388 N.E.2d 1121, 1126, the appellate court reversed a judgment entered on a verdict in favor of the defendant in a suit brought by beneficiaries for additional indemnity under policy provisions identical to those here. The decedent, a heroin addict, died after a self-administered overdose of heroin. The evidence did not indicate that the decedent intended to kill himself. The court stated that in determining the cause of death, it "need not seek out the cause of the act of self-injection, i.e., the cause of the cause." (70 Ill. App.3d 790, 796, 388 N.E.2d 1121, 1126.) (In Marsh, the court presumed that heroin addiction was a disease but noted that it was questionable whether heroin addiction was, in fact, a disease within the meaning of the insurance policy.)

• 1 In Burns v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. (1936), 283 Ill. App. 431, the insured died from a fall to the sidewalk from her apartment window. There was evidence indicating that she may have had a dizzy spell as a result of arteriosclerosis and hypertension. The insurance company contended that the plaintiff failed to show that the decedent's death was not contributed to directly or indirectly by a disease or bodily infirmity. The court said:

"[W]e are inclined to the opinion that under the uncontradicted evidence here, it cannot be said that there is any proof from which the court could reasonably find that disease or bodily or mental infirmity was either an `immediate' or `cooperative' cause of the death of the insured. The means of death being accidental and the death being the immediate result of these accidental means, the accident was the legal cause of death and plaintiff is entitled to recover." 283 Ill. App. 431, 441.

We find appropriate, as did the court in Burns, Lord Bacon's maxim, "It were infinite for the law to consider the causes of causes, and their impulsions one of another; therefore it contenteth itself with the immediate cause." (283 Ill. App. 431, 438.) In the present case, the immediate cause of decedent's death was the lethal content of alcohol in his body. While alcoholism might have provided the desire to drink, mere desire does not stop a heart or cause the lungs to cease functioning. Therefore, alcoholism can only be considered as a remote cause and not a contributing cause of death. Had defendant submitted evidence that alcoholism had rendered decedent's body less capable of surviving the dose of alcohol ingested, there would have been a question as to whether a disease contributed to decedent's death. No such evidence was presented.

A more difficult question is whether, based upon the information before the trial court, it could properly determine as a matter of law that decedent's death resulted "solely through accidental means."

Both of the parties moved for summary judgment. We are aware of the theory that, in such a case, because both parties had represented to the court that the case presented no factual issues, the party against whom summary judgment was entered cannot complain unless that party was entitled to summary judgment in its favor. (See Allen v. Meyer (1958), 14 Ill.2d 284, 152 N.E.2d 576; Comisky v. Farm Dealer Supply, Inc. (1981), 99 Ill. App.3d 807, 426 N.E.2d 16; Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. v. Wiemer (1981), 96 Ill. App.3d 549, 421 N.E.2d 1002.) However, the majority is not in agreement as to the application of that theory. (See Nussbaum v. Williams (1980), 86 Ill. App.3d 272, 407 N.E.2d 1139; Perlman v. Time, Inc. (1978), 64 Ill. App.3d 190, 380 N.E.2d 1040.) Because the trial court correctly ruled the death resulted "solely through accidental means" as a matter of law, we need not wrestle with the problem of the effect of cross motions for summary judgment.

Our supreme court's most recent interpretation of the phrase "accidental means" appeared in Taylor v. John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. (1957), 11 Ill.2d 227, 142 N.E.2d 5. In that case, Frank Owen had conspired with two other men to burn down a house in order to collect on the insurance. The three men poured 10 gallons of gasoline on the floor and furniture of the house. While Owen was in the bedroom collecting bed clothing, the gasoline was ignited, apparently by a furnace pilot light in the living room. Owen was incinerated. His life insurance policy provided that death benefits would be paid if death occurred as a result of bodily injuries sustained solely through accidental means. A suit brought for recovery under the above provision was heard at bench. A judgment for the insurer was reversed by the appellate court. (Taylor v. John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. (1956), 9 Ill. App.2d 330, 132 N.E.2d 579.) The supreme court affirmed the appellate court thus determining as a matter of law that the arsonist's death resulted from accidental means.

In interpreting the phrase "accidental means," the supreme court said:

"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. Banker's Life & Casualty Co., 415 Ill. 16; Rodgers v. Reserve Life Insurance Co., ...

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