A Colorado Supreme Court case decided today is a blow to the widely promulgated myth that important systemically used contracts have the language that they do because the meaning of the words used in them is settled law. Its opinion today in the case of Renfandt v. New York Life Insurance Company, 2018 CO 49, demonstrates that this is not the case, opening with the following language (bold emphasis added):
¶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.The Court goes on to find that suicidal intent is necessary in Colorado. It's holding states:
¶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” 5 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.
Incidentally, suicide exclusions are also prohibited in life insurance policies on Colorado insured after when the death occurs after the first policy year, unless the policy is an accidental death policy.