The issue in Johnson v.
American United Life Insurance Co. [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to lexis.com
subscribers], decided last week by the Fourth Circuit. was whether
the Plaintiff's husband's death from a car wreck while driving intoxicated
was an "accident" under his life insurance policy from Defendant
American United which provided "Accidental Death and Dismemberment"
The policy didn't contain a definition for an
"accident," making it necessary for the Court to interpret the term.
It noted in passing that "[t]here are probably not many words
which have caused courts as much trouble as 'accident' and 'accidental.'"
Op. at n.1.
In the end, Judge Traxler ruled that the dead husband was
covered by the policy, though he said that:
Reaching this result gives us no great pleasure. Drunk
driving is reckless, irresponsible conduct that produces tragic consequences
for the thousands it touches annually. But our task in this case is not to
promote personal responsibility or enforce good driving habits. We must focus
on the terms of the policies issued under the Plan and determine whether Richard
died as a result of an accident without 'allowing our moral judgments about
drunk driving to influence our
The Court's analysis began with two competing definitions
of the term "accident." The Plaintiff argued that the
"most natural and common understanding of the term . . . is an
unintentional, unplanned incident that occurs as a result of a careless
error." Op. at 12. She said that unless an intoxicated driver
intended to crash his car and die, that his death would be an accident under
Another definition of "accident" would
"exclude any incident where the consequences of intentional conduct
are expected or reasonably forseeable." Op. at 13.
Finding the term ambiguous, the Court applied "the
rule of contra proferentum and construed the term strictly in favor of
the insured." Op. at 15. It found no evidence that the
driver intended to have an accident and deemed the insured's death to be an
Read this article in
its entirety on North
Carolina Business Litigation Report, a blog for lawyers focusing on issues
of North Carolina business law and the day-to-day practice of business
litigation in North Carolina courts.