Law School Case Brief
Valley Nat'l Bank v. J. C. Penney Ins. Co. - 129 Ariz. 108
As in all civil or criminal cases, the burden of proving accidental death may be discharged by circumstantial evidence.
Frank O. Seay, Jr., his wife Sharon G. Seay, and step-daughter, Sheri Lynn Seay, departed Phoenix, Arizona, in their travel camper for what was scheduled to be a two-week camping trip in Baja California, Mexico. When the Seays failed to return to Phoenix within that time, a search effort was conducted. The search failed to turn up any trace of the missing trio. Several months later, Frank Seay, Jr.’s skeletal remains were found. Several fired bullet casings were found nearby. The insured's wife and step-daughter, who accompanied him on his trip, were never found or seen again.
At the time of his death, Frank Seay, Jr. had life insurance policies in force with appellees J. C. Penney, Guardsman and Old Republic, which provided death benefits of $ 5,000 each for the Guardsman and Old Republic policies and $ 10,000 for the J. C. Penney policy. In addition, each of the policies provided for double indemnity in the event of accidental death. The insurance companies tendered payment of the death benefits but refused payment under the double indemnity provisions, contending that the estate of Shay (appellant) had failed to provide any evidence of "accidental" death. The trial court granted summary judgment for the insurers.
Was Seay's death accidental?
As in all civil or criminal cases, the burden of proving accidental death may be discharged by circumstantial evidence. Furthermore, the insurance policies did not contain any requirement that the precise cause of death be established by medical expertise. An accidental death may be reasonably inferred from the circumstances here. Viewed in the light most favorable toward appellant, the court did not find these facts to show equal support for opposing conclusions. The total disappearance of the wife and step-daughter and Seay’s truck during the same time interval, coupled with the skeletal remains at the scene, presented a strong inference that Seay's death was not from natural causes. There was no need for further evidence. A court or jury could reasonably infer from these circumstances that Seay had not died a natural death.
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