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Kay v. New York Life Insurance Co.

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

June 4, 2018

Melissa Kay Renfandt, Plaintiff
v.
New York Life Insurance Company. Defendant

          United States District Court for the District of Colorado Case No. 16CV01812-MSK-GPG

          Attorneys for Plaintiff: Keating Wagner Polidori Free, P.C. Zachary C. Warzel Daniel A. Wartell Lidiana Rios Ross W. Pulkrabek Denver, Colorado.

          Attorneys for Defendant: Hall & Evans, L.L.C. Kevin E. O'Brien Gillian Dale Denver, Colorado.

          Attorneys for Amicus Curiae Colorado Trial Lawyers Association: McDermott Law, LLC Timothy M. Garvey Denver, Colorado.

          Attorneys for Amicus Curiae American Council of Life Insurers: Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP Aaron A. Boschee Denver, Colorado.

          Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP Mary Jo Hudson Holly W. Wallinger Nicholas P. Zalany Columbus, Ohio.

          OPINION

          MÁRQUEZ JUSTICE.

         ¶1 While appearing to be in a "zombie-like" state from a combination of prescription medication, alcohol, and marijuana, Mark Renfandt shot himself in the head and died. When Mark's wife tried to collect life insurance benefits under a temporary coverage agreement issued by New York Life Insurance Company, the insurer denied the claim, citing a provision in the agreement that excluded coverage for "suicide . . . while sane or insane."

         ¶2 Mark's wife sued New York Life in state court, asserting breach of contract and other claims. She argues that Mark's death was not a suicide because the combination of substances that Mark ingested rendered him so intoxicated that he was unable to act volitionally or form suicidal intent when he shot himself. Thus, she contends, the policy's suicide exclusion does not apply to Mark's death.

         ¶3 New York Life removed the case to federal court and moved to dismiss the complaint. It maintains that the term "suicide" must be read in conjunction with the phrase "sane or insane, " and that this additional language in the agreement was meant to remove any inquiry into whether the decedent intended to kill himself.

         ¶4 The United States District Court for the District of Colorado determined that the meaning of "suicide . . . while sane or insane" is unclear under Colorado law, and certified the question to this court under C.A.R. 21.1:

Under Colorado law, does a life insurance policy's exclusion for "suicide, sane or insane" exclude coverage (1) for all acts of self-destruction without regard to the insured's intent or understanding of the nature and consequences of his/her actions or (2) for only acts of self-destruction committed when the insured intends to take his/her own life or understands the nature and consequences of his/her actions?

         ¶5 The meaning of the term "suicide" in the context of an insurance policy exclusion-and how to construe such an exclusion when the term "suicide" is modified by the words "sane or insane"-are questions that have divided English and American courts since the early nineteenth century. Several American courts have held that the phrase "suicide, sane or insane" refers to acts of self-destruction regardless of whether the decedent understood the physical nature or consequences of his act or had a conscious purpose to take his life-in other words, regardless of whether the decedent acted with an intent to kill himself. Others have concluded that, for a death to be considered a suicide, the decedent must have intended to kill himself, and that the additional words "sane or insane" do not negate the essential requirement of suicidal intent.

         ¶6 This disagreement appears to stem from different concepts of the term "suicide." Some courts conceive of "suicide" broadly to mean any act of self-destruction. Others treat "suicide" as a concept that requires the decedent to be aware of the physical nature and consequences of his act, and to intend to kill himself. Under this view, "suicide" is limited to acts of intentional self-destruction; it is the deliberate termination of one's existence.

         ¶7 This court has sided with the latter view, indicating in Lockwood v. Travelers Insurance Co., 498 P.2d 947, 951 (Colo. 1972), that suicide requires both a voluntary act (in that case, consciously pulling a trigger) and suicidal intent (i.e., an intent to cause one's own death). Today, we reaffirm this view of the term "suicide" and conclude that the additional words "sane or insane" do not negate the requirement that the "suicide" be an act of self-destruction taken with the intent to cause one's own death. Thus, we answer the certified question: under Colorado law, a life insurance policy exclusion for "suicide, sane or insane" excludes coverage only if the insured, whether sane or insane at the time, committed an act of self-destruction with the intent to kill himself.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶8 The complaint alleges the following facts. Mark and Melissa ("Missy") Renfandt married in August 2014. The couple began the process of adopting a child, and in late November 2014, Mark applied for a life insurance policy with New York Life Insurance Company, naming Missy as the beneficiary. New York Life issued a temporary coverage agreement that insured Mark's life while the insurer considered his application. The agreement contained a provision excluding coverage for "suicide or intentionally self-inflicted injury . . . while sane or insane." One month later, on December 22, 2014, Mark died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

         ¶9 On the morning of his death, Mark took Tamiflu, per his doctor's instructions, and drove to work. (Mark also regularly took Diazepam, which he was prescribed for general anxiety, and Prilosec, an over-the-counter medication for heartburn.) After work, Mark and his employees celebrated the promotion of a project manager at the company. Mark had too much to drink, and had to be driven home.

         ¶10 Thirty minutes to an hour after Mark arrived home, Missy went downstairs to check on Mark and found him face down on the kitchen floor. Missy helped Mark onto a couch, and she returned to their upstairs bedroom. A short while later, Missy heard a thump and went downstairs, where she found Mark had fallen partly off the couch. Missy helped him back onto the couch, and she again retreated to their bedroom.

         ¶11 About half an hour later, Missy heard the door open from the kitchen to the garage, where Mark stored his edible marijuana products. Missy came back downstairs and found Mark "sleepwalking, zombie-like, with a blank, glazed-over look in his eyes." Mark was unresponsive. Missy put Mark back onto the couch, and she returned, once more, to their bedroom.

         ¶12 Later that night, Missy awoke, sensing her husband's presence in the bedroom. Missy saw Mark open the drawer where they kept a loaded handgun. Mark dangled the gun in his left hand and said nothing; instead, he "stared blankly ahead, completely unresponsive and appearing to be in a sleepwalking state, unaware of his surroundings or his actions." Missy, believing Mark to be sleepwalking and not wanting to startle him, slowly moved toward him to take the gun away. But the gun fired, shooting Mark in the head and killing him.

         ¶13 The coroner's death certificate listed the manner of Mark's death as "suicide." A toxicology report showed that Mark's blood alcohol concentration ("BAC") was 0.325%.[1] The report contained an annotation stating, "BAC: coma, alcohol poisoning." The report also showed that Mark had clonazepam and marijuana in his system at the time of his death. The toxicologist did not test for Tamiflu.

         ¶14 Nine months after Mark's death, Missy submitted a claim for benefits under Mark's temporary coverage agreement with New York Life. New York Life denied the claim because "[according to the death certificate, police report, and coroner's report, " Mark had committed suicide, and the agreement did not cover "suicide or intentionally self-inflicted injury . . . while sane or insane."

         ¶15 Missy filed a complaint against New York Life in Garfield County district court, asserting claims for breach of contract, breach of duty of good faith and fair dealing, and unjust enrichment. The insurer removed the case to federal district court and moved to dismiss the complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. The federal district court denied the motion without prejudice and certified the following question of law to this court:

Under Colorado law, does a life insurance policy's exclusion for "suicide, sane or insane" exclude coverage (1) for all acts of self-destruction without regard to the insured's intent or understanding of the nature and consequences of his/her actions or (2) for only acts of self-destruction committed when the insured intends to take ...

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