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Dooley v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.

Decided: February 10, 1969.

BERNARD J. DOOLEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, A CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT



Simpson, J.c.c. (temporarily assigned).

Simpson

At about midnight, May 19-20, 1967, James Hanley parked his 1967 Mustang in front of a store he operated in Greenwood Lake, New York. He left the keys in the car; when he returned after picking up a package from the store his car was gone. A few minutes later a "file 1" police radio broadcast alerted all patrol cars, and within seconds Patrolmen Lyons and Schaefer spotted the car going south on Jersey Avenue. The police car pulled directly behind the Mustang and put on its dome light, but the Mustang pulled around several preceding cars and "took off." The ensuing pursuit, at high speeds with dome light flashing and siren wailing, ended a few minutes and miles later, about a mile and a half from the New Jersey border. Thomas Dooley, operating the Mustang without the owner's permission, failed to negotiate a curve, lost control of the vehicle, ran off the roadway and struck a pole, sustaining serious injuries resulting in his death an hour later. At the crash site and before Dooley, age 20, was taken to a hospital -- and while he was unconscious -- a police captain "advised him of his rights and told him he was under arrest for grand larceny."

Plaintiff, as beneficiary, collected the face amount of life insurance under a policy issued by defendant to his son, and sues for the double indemnity benefit payable on proof of death "as the result, directly and independently of all other causes, of bodily injury caused solely by external, violent and accidental means." Defendant refuses to pay the "additional indemnity benefit", (1) denying that the death was the result of accidental means since it was the foreseeable, natural and probable consequence of decedent's actions, and (2) asserting that public policy precludes recovery, even in the absence of a "violation of law" exclusionary clause, since death resulted from the commission of a crime.

With respect to (1) plaintiff relies upon Schwartz v. John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co., 96 N.J. Super. 520 (Law Div. 1967), affirmed 99 N.J. Super. 223 (App. Div. 1968), certification denied 51 N.J. 393 (1968), and as to (2) he

relies upon the absence of a specific applicable exclusionary clause and contends that there is no New Jersey public policy precluding recovery under the facts which he contends, at most prove guilt of "joyriding" rather than larceny.

I

The facts of this case are similar to those in Schwartz, supra, except that here Dooley operated the Mustang without the owner's permission. There is no significant difference in the "accidental means" clauses of the policies, but in Schwartz there was an exclusion for death resulting from "participation in an assault or a felony" while Dooley's policy exclusion was where death "results from committing an assault." Defendant does not contend that Dooley's conduct was an assault within this exclusion. Decedent and the beneficiary resided in New Jersey, the policy was issued in this State, and it is unquestioned that in construing the policy clauses the law of New Jersey applies. Kievit v. Loyal Protective Life Ins. Co., 34 N.J. 475, 491-492 (1961). Such construction should be liberal rather than literal, as aptly summarized by Justice Jacobs in Kievit, supra:

"When members of the public purchase policies of insurance they are entitled to the broad measure of protection necessary to fulfill their reasonable expectations. They should not be subjected to technical encumbrances or to hidden pitfalls and their policies should be construed liberally in their favor to the end that coverage is afforded 'to the full extent that any fair interpretation will allow' [citations omitted]." (at p. 482)

Just as in Schwartz, the policy here contains no exclusion for unnecessary, voluntary exposure to danger, so that defendant's reliance upon the accidental means clause is misplaced. The crash, which was the proximate cause of the injuries and death, resulted from failure to negotiate a curve in the road, which was an unexpected, unforeseen and unusual extent constituting accidental means under settled New Jersey law. Furthermore, for insurance contract purposes,

an insured is not deemed to intend all the probable or foreseeable consequences of his conduct, and recovery is only precluded where there is a reasonable basis for his belief that his conduct makes serious injury or death a virtual certainty. Schwartz, supra, at page 530. In this case, it is reasonable to conclude that Dooley believed his conduct ...


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