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JOHNSON v. METROPOLITAN LIFE INS. CO.

August 31, 1967

Aguida E. JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: COOLAHAN

 Defendant moves for summary judgment in this action to recover the $30,000.00 face value of a life insurance policy under which plaintiff was the beneficiary; the insured was Richard Johnson, who died within 2 years of its issuance from burns suffered in a fire he admittedly started at the Johnson home. Defendant denies coverage and offers the return of premiums paid. Its disclaimer is based on the following exclusionary provision:

 
"Suicide - If, within two years from the date of issue, the Insured dies as a result of suicide, while sane or insane, the liability of the Company will be limited to an amount equal to the premiums paid, without interest."

 Metropolitan concedes the decedent's alleged insanity at the time of his self-destruction, for purposes of tlaintiff to her proof.

 Such provisions as the one at Bar have become the common response of the insurance industry to early cases holding that an exclusionary provision for suicide did not bar acts of self-destruction committed while the insured was insane. See Annotation, "Insurance, Suicide - Sane or Insane", 9 A.L.R.3d 1015, 1017; Am-Jur. Insurance (Rev.Ed. ยง 1144). Those decisions assumed there could be no bar of suicide unless the deceased was able to form a conscious intention to kill himself and to carry out that act, realizing its physical - and moral - consequences.

 Stated briefly, plaintiff's theory is that her husband's insanity at the time in question was of such an extent and nature as to preclude a finding of suicide, as that term should be interpreted in the policy. Hence, she reasons, the attempted precautionary phrase, "while sane or insane", does not apply, since it merely modifies the sine qua non of the exclusion, namely, a suicide. To avoid making the "sane or insane" language a complete nullity, plaintiff is led to the following necessary position: Some insane persons may still be mentally capable of forming the requisite intent and having the necessary perception to commit a "suicide"; their death would be barred under this policy. Other persons, of whom Richard Johnson was one, suffer from insanity of such intensity or form that they are incapable of suicide and are not barred by such an exclusionary provision.

 Having considered the motion papers and argument, as well as the materials offered on a prior motion to consolidate this action with another, *fn1" I cannot agree with plaintiff's contention; on the facts of this case, defendant is entitled to summary judgment that the insured committed suicide within the meaning of the policy.

 On the basis of the pleadings, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, it is undisputed that on July 7, 1965, the decedent spread fuel oil around the premises at 22 Alden Road, Montclair, New Jersey, saturated his clothing with fuel oil, set the premises and himself on fire, and died from the severe burns suffered in that fire. Plaintiff has represented that the illness which resulted in these acts involved severe psychosexual disturbance which had manifested itself both in the unfortunate relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, and in a "bizarre" series of incidents involving the decedent and his daughter over the course of many years. The details and specific physical circumstances of Mr. Johnson's death also allegedly reflect his sexual aberration in a shocking manner.

 The lawsuit was commenced in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Essex County, Law Division, and was removed here on the basis of diversity. Accordingly, we must examine the above facts primarily in the context of New Jersey insurance law. However, to the extent that such law is not dispositive, I have considered the many cases of other jurisdictions on the precise point before me. See, e.g., Ricciuti v. Voltarc Tubes, Inc., 277 F.2d 809 (2nd Cir. 1960); Buhonick v. American Fidelity & Casualty Co., 190 F. Supp. 399 (W.D.Pa., 1960); Peerless Insurance Co. v. Cerny & Associates, 199 F. Supp. 951 (D.Minn.1961). At the outset, it is clear that New Jersey has a strong public policy against suicide or any actions which might encourage it. Potts v. Barrett Division, 48 N.J.Super. 554, 138 A.2d 574 (App.Div., 1958) [and cases cited]. Inherently, life insurance policies provide an incentive at cross-purpose with this policy. Therefore, while ambiguities in adhesion insurance contracts are to be construed generally against the draftsman insurer, Ruvolo v. American Casualty Co., 39 N.J. 490, 189 A.2d 204 (1963), this issue suggests at least some counterbalancing ground for furthering New Jersey policy by a construction of the suicide exclusionary clause which will not undermine that policy by facilitating circumvention of the exclusion.

 To the extent that an exclusionary clause is not deemed ambiguous, New Jersey Courts generally will give it effect to limit the insurer's risk if it is reasonable and not contrary to public policy. James v. Federal Insurance Co., 5 N.J. 21, 73 A.2d 720 (1950); Capece v. Allstate Insurance Co., 88 N.J.Super. 535, 212 A.2d 863 (Law Div., 1965). Nor should ambiguity be too readily implied for an exclusionary clause merely because the purpose of the insured was to seek liability to the beneficiary on the part of the insurer in case of the insured's death. The exclusionary provision is not a step-child, but a competent part of the contract and its purpose must also be considered. "Exclusionary clauses must be examined and interpreted in light of their design and intent as well as in view of the objects and purposes of the policy." State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Cocuzza, 91 N.J.Super. 60, 65, 219 A.2d 190, 193 (Ch.Div.1966). *fn2"

 The widow plaintiff won a declaratory judgment that the exclusion for the insured's intentional acts did not apply if he was sufficiently insane. Reversing, the New Jersey Supreme Court disapproved of summary judgment granted on the basis of psychiatrist's affidavit, and remanded the matter for trial on that issue. By implication and in express dictum, it approved the lower court's holding that if Dr. Ruvolo was unable to know the nature and quality of his act, or to distinguish right from wrong, or to control his conduct, the homicide would not be within the policy exclusion. *fn3"

 Patently, Ruvolo involves no self-destruction by the insured at all. Nonetheless, plaintiff asserts that the decision indicates New Jersey law would allow recovery here, because the Supreme Court's opinion in Ruvolo analogized its reasoning to earlier cases wherein recovery for self-destruction by an insane insured was permitted despite an exclusionary clause. This reliance is misplaced in that those decisions dealt specifically with "suicide" exclusions which did not contain the "sane or insane" proviso at Bar. E.g., Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Terry, 82 U.S. 580, 15 Wall. 580, 21 L. Ed. 236 (1873). In fact, juxtaposition of the Terry case with Bigelow v. Berkshire Life Insurance Co., 93 U.S. 284, 23 L. Ed. 918 (1876) decided only three years after Terry, strongly militates against plaintiff's position. The policy in Bigelow, contained a suicide while sane or insane form of exclusion and the Court explicitly distinguished Terry on that ground. These, and the other cases cited by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Ruvolo, suggest that the Court thought the intentional act exclusion in Ruvolo corresponded to the self-destruction exclusion, without any accompanying expansion of such exclusion to include insane insureds, faced in the Terry case. If so, then the addition of the sane or insane modifier would correspond to the next rung up the ladder of protection for the insurer, and one which the reasoning in Ruvolo leaves untouched. The rest of that opinion insofar as it is at all pertinent here merely reiterates the general maxims of construction referred to above, which I have taken into consideration.

 The other New Jersey case offered by plaintiff, Kobylakiewicz v. Prudential Ins. Co., 115 N.J.L. 382, 180 A. 491 (Sup.Ct.1935), is also inapposite for the same reasons. There, insanity impelling the insured's self-destruction was held sufficient to qualify the ...


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