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Perrine v. Prudential Insurance Co.

Decided: May 18, 1970.


For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor and Hall. For affirmance -- Justice Haneman. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Hall, J. Haneman, J. (dissenting).


[56 NJ Page 121] The plaintiff, beneficiary under two life insurance policies issued by defendant on the life of her husband, sued

for the double indemnity benefit provided by those contracts in case the death of the insured occurred "as a result, directly and independently of all other causes, of bodily injuries, effected solely through external, violent and accidental means." The trial judge, sitting with a jury, granted a judgment of involuntary dismissal at the end of plaintiff's case on the basis that our decisions in Linden Motor Freight Co. v. Travelers Ins. Co., 40 N.J. 511 (1963), and Harris v. John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co., 41 N.J. 565 (1964), dictated that result. The Appellate Division affirmed for the same reason in an unreported per curiam opinion. We granted plaintiff's petition for certification. 54 N.J. 519 (1969).

In Linden and Harris the deaths were the result of heart attacks following physical exertion, which was held not to constitute "accidental means." Here death was caused by peritonitis following a break in the large intestine which, according to plaintiff's proofs, came about from the pressure of a heavy piece of equipment against the decedent's abdomen.

The details of those proofs disclose the following course of events. Plaintiff was a truck driver. On September 11, 1964, a Friday, he and a helper were directed to remove a bulky cabinet-type piece of telephone equipment, about six feet high and weighing 600 to 700 pounds, from the basement of a bank in Princeton and to deliver a new, similar piece of equipment to the same location. The removal of the old equipment was accomplished first. It had no handles and had to be moved by being strapped upright to a hand truck. The means of access to street level was a rather narrow stairway, which had a turn and landing in it. According to the testimony of the helper, the old equipment was moved up the stairs on the hand truck step by step, with the helper pulling and the decedent, the larger and stronger of the two men, pushing from behind. It is a reasonable inference that decedent braced the load with his body during the operation. Nothing untoward occurred, in the sense that neither man slipped, fell or lost his grip. The decedent

made no complaint, although half way up the stairs they stopped to rest a couple of minutes at his request. The load was wheeled from the top of the stairs to the street. There it was tipped against the decedent's body so that the helper could replace the hand truck with a four wheel, flat dolly, upon which it was moved to the vehicle, where it was lifted and placed inside by an attached hydraulic lift. The new equipment was then delivered to the basement location. This time both men stood to the rear of the hand truck and lowered it a step at a time. Again nothing out of the ordinary occurred and decedent made no complaint. The whole operation took three to four hours. The men then returned to the trucking company terminal, completing the day's work.

At home that evening and the next day decedent appeared unwell and lacked appetite. His only explanation to his sons was that he had had a "terrible day." His wife was engaged elsewhere on a baby-sitting job and on Saturday he told her over the telephone that "something happened at work yesterday", but declined to elaborate. Sunday he felt worse, his wife suggested he go to a doctor and he was admitted to the hospital that evening. Surgery was later undertaken which disclosed waste matter in the pelvic cavity. According to the testimony of the surgeon, this was proved "to come from a perforation of his large bowel." He died several days thereafter from inflammation of the abdominal cavity.

During the decedent's stay in the hospital both his wife and the surgeon inquired about the onset of his condition. He told her that he began to feel sick and felt a sharp pain in his abdomen while he was moving heavy freight on Friday, September 11. He told the surgeon, who recorded the statement in the hospital record, that "he had been doing heavy work and lifting heavy objects and he had to get them against his abdomen. His pain first came shortly after this." He apparently did not indicate at what point in the work process this occurred. The surgeon gave his opinion that

the intestinal rupture was due to the very heavy work and the great pressure put against the abdominal wall. The defendant concedes that causal connection between the work and the death was thereby sufficiently established for purposes of plaintiff's case.

The issue in the case is whether plaintiff has shown enough, in the light of Linden and Harris, to make out a fact question for the jury, upon which it could reasonably find that the bodily injury of a ruptured intestine resulting in death was "effected * * * through * * * accidental means." No other question has been raised. This issue appears to have been somewhat misunderstood at the trial level. Both counsel and the trial judge seemed of the view that the question of "accidental means" is always one of law for the court. While we specifically so held on the facts in Harris (41 N.J. at 568), and inferentially in Linden, such is not true in every case. Indeed, Harris states that the issue is generally one of fact. Perhaps the misapprehension here came about because both Linden and Harris were tried to the court without a jury and arose on appellate review on the judge's findings and conclusions on the whole case.

The attempt in Linden, and as summarized in Harris, was to reach a definitive approach for this state to the interpretation and application of the long troublesome "accidental means" provision in insurance contracts. We there pointed out that the phrase had reference to the character of the events preceding and leading up to the accidental (unexpected or unforeseen) result and not merely to the character of the result -- that a contract so providing did not insure against accidental bodily injuries, but covered only if that result was brought about by something accidental in the events preceding and leading up to it. So we felt unable to follow the approach of the Cardozo dissent in Landress v. Phoenix Mut. Life Ins. Co., 291 U.S. 491, ...

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