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Amica Life Insurance Co. v. Wertz

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 7, 2017

AMICA LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL P. WERTZ, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S RULE 702 MOTION

          Wlliam J. Martínez United States District Judge

         In this declaratory judgment action, Plaintiff Amica Life Insurance Company (“Amica”) seeks a ruling that the death of an insured, Martin K. Fisher (“Fisher”), does not obligate it to pay life insurance benefits because Fisher took his own life. (ECF No. 1.) Defendant Michael P. Wertz (“Wertz”) is the named beneficiary under Fisher's policy, and has counterclaimed for breach of insurance contract. (ECF No. 50.)

         Currently before the Court is Amica's Motion Pursuant to Fed.R.Evid. 702 to Exclude Testimony of Defendant's Expert. (ECF No. 58.) For the reasons explained below, this motion is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         As summarized in the Court's only other substantive order in this matter, this dispute centers around whether the suicide exclusion in Fisher's life insurance policy is enforceable. See Amica Life Ins. Co. v. Wertz, 2016 WL 8253895, at *1 (D. Colo. May 11, 2016).[1] Fisher's policy with Amica provided that suicide was not covered if it occurred within two years of when the policy issues, as permitted under the Individual Term Life Insurance Standards (“Interstate Standards”) promulgated by the Interstate Insurance Product Regulation Commission (“Commission”). Id. Colorado is a member of the Interstate Insurance Product Regulation Compact, from which the Commission derives its authority. Id.

         Fisher's suicide on March 12, 2015, was less than two years from January 28, 2014, when his policy issued. Id. Given that, Amica denied Wertz's claim for Fisher's death benefit. Id. Wertz contends, however, that Colorado Revised Statutes § 10-7-109 controls this matter. Id. That statute only permits one-year suicide exclusions, and Fisher's suicide took place more than one year after his policy issued. Amica then filed for declaratory judgment that the Interstate Standards control when in conflict with § 10-7-109; Wertz counterclaimed for the opposite declaration, and for the policy benefits themselves. Id.

         At first, the parties agreed that this case presented a pure issue of law to be resolved on the papers: does application of the Interstate Standards in Colorado violate Colorado constitutional doctrines regarding delegation of legislative authority, separation of powers, equal protection, and special legislation? Id. at *1-2. After the close of briefing on those matters, however, Wertz filed a motion to amend his answer and counterclaims, asserting that he had recently discovered evidence suggesting that the Commission did not follow its own procedures for promulgating the Interstate Standards. Id. at *2-3. The Court agreed to permit amendment, finding that the Commission's alleged procedural irregularity should be explored because, if the irregularity in fact existed, it would permit the Court to avoid the “weighty” Colorado constitutional questions. Id.

         About a month before the Court issued that order, Wertz obtained an expert opinion from Mr. John Kezer, Esq., regarding various matters supposedly at issue. (ECF No. 58-1.) Amica now moves to exclude Kezer's opinion as inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, largely because it comprises interpretations of (or opinions about) the law, not explanation of facts in light of governing law.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A district court must act as a “gatekeeper” in admitting or excluding expert testimony. Bitler v. A.O. Smith Corp., 400 F.3d 1227, 1232 (10th Cir. 2004). Admission of expert testimony is governed by Rule 702, which provides:

A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if: (a) the expert's scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue; (b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data; (c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and (d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

Fed. R. Evid. 702. The proponent of the expert testimony bears the burden of proving the foundational requirements of Rule 702 by a preponderance of the evidence. United States v. Nacchio, 555 F.3d 1234, 1241 (10th Cir. 2009) (en banc).

         “An opinion is not objectionable just because it embraces an ultimate issue.” Fed.R.Evid. 704(a). Nonetheless, “[t]here is a significant difference between an attorney who states his belief of what law should govern the case and any other expert witness. While other experts may aid a jury by rendering opinions on ultimate issues, our system reserves to the trial judge the role of adjudicating the law for the benefit of the jury.” Specht v. Jensen, 853 F.2d 805, 808-09 (10th Cir. 1988).

         III. ...


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