James J. Kilpatrick

Late on the night of March 19, 2004, Earl Eckelberry was driving along Route 50-E near Parkersburg, W.Va. His car left the highway and crashed into an illegally parked tractor-trailer. He died in the wreckage.

Thereby hangs Case 06-1150, now pending in the Supreme Court on a petition for appeal. The court ought to hear this case. It's time to review the legal meaning of "accidental" death.

The facts are not in dispute. As an employee of Ames True Temper Inc., Eckelberry had obtained an Accidental Death and Dismemberment policy from ReliaStar Life Insurance Co. The policy promised benefits if the insured died "due to an accident." The plan defined "accident" as "an unexpected and sudden event which the insured does not foresee."

Eckelberry had named his wife, Michele, as his beneficiary. She filed a timely claim for $86,000 for his "accidental" death. Remarkably, the plan vested final interpretation of ReliaStar's policy in ReliaStar. When an autopsy found a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 percent, ReliaStar, unremarkably, refused to pay. The company contended that the fatal accident was not, legally speaking, an accident at all: By drinking heavily, the driver knowingly had put himself at risk of serious injury or death. Therefore, his injuries could not have been "unexpected."

Mrs. Eckelberry's suit wound up in federal court under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). There, U.S. District Judge Robert Goodwin found in her favor, but last November a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed. Speaking through Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, the court held that ReliaStar's decision was "not unreasonable." We will know in a few weeks if the high court will hear the widow's appeal.

In their petition to the high court, her attorneys make a persuasive case for the Supremes' fresh consideration of the meaning of "accident." They cite to cases in nine states since 1961 in which state courts have ruled that death as a consequence of drunk driving is "accidental." The states are Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

Standard dictionaries are not much help to the plaintiff. True, the lexicographers agree that an "accident" is simply "an unforeseen and unplanned event that results from chance rather than from design." But an accident is also "an unfortunate event resulting esp. from carelessness or ignorance." It is "an unexpected happening causing loss or injury which is not due to any fault or misconduct on the part of the person injured but for which legal relief may be sought."

James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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