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Pollard v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.

decided: May 8, 1979.

MARGARET L. POLLARD, APPELLANT,
v.
METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, APPELLEE



APPEAL FROM THE JUDGMENT OF THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (D.C. Civil No. 75-811)

Before Adams and Weis, Circuit Judges, and Weiner, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Weiner

Opinion OF THE COURT

The appellant in this diversity case seeks to overturn a jury verdict rendered in favor of the defendant, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. The jury found that the appellant was not entitled to recover accidental death insurance benefits under two policies covering her deceased husband. The trial judge entered judgment for the defendant, and denied the appellant's motion for a new trial. Upon review of the evidentiary rulings and jury instructions which have been attacked by the appellant, we conclude that no error was committed by the court below. Accordingly we affirm the judgment and the denial of appellant's motion for a new trial.

The record shows that on October 7, 1974, the appellant's husband, Walter Pollard, a resident of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, was in Hampton, South Carolina for a business conference. He and his co-workers were assigned separate bedrooms at the Micarta Lodge, which was owned by their employer, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. That evening, Mr. Pollard and several other employees dined at a restaurant that served alcoholic beverages. After dinner, Pollard and his co-workers returned to the Lodge where, after a short time, Pollard's speech became slurred and he stumbled when attempting to rise from his seat. Believing that Pollard was drunk, two co-workers escorted Pollard to his room and placed him on his bed fully clothed. The next morning, Pollard was found dead in his room.

A necropsy report indicated that Pollard died as a result of asphyxia due to aspiration of his gastric contents caused by acute alcohol and drug intoxication.*fn1 The report also showed enlargement and fatty degeneration of his liver, and mild to moderate atherosclerosis.

The decedent was insured by the defendant, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., under two group insurance policies providing for benefits upon accidental death. Under the terms of the policies, in order to recover, death must have occurred to the insured, "solely by violent, external and accidental means". Both policies contain a clause which bars payment of death benefits when death is caused by or results from "intentional self-destruction or intentionally self-inflicted injury while sane or insane". Citing the ingestion of alcohol and tranquilizers by the decedent, and the enlargement and fatty degeneration of the decedent's liver, the defendant refused to pay Pollard's widow the death benefits provided by the policies.

At trial, the appellant sought to introduce into evidence the death certificate, coroner's certificate (cause of death memorandum) and pathologist's (necropsy) report. Her first ground for reversal is that the trial judge erred when he ruled that the documents would be admitted into evidence only if statements contained within them, which declared that the death was accidental, were excised.*fn2 It was ostensibly because of this limitation that the appellant ultimately decided not to present the documents to the jury. (Tr. 430).

We must first determine which body of law is looked to when deciding whether the limitation imposed on the admissibility of the documents was erroneous. The appellant asserts that since Pennsylvania law governs the rights of the parties under the insurance contract, Pennsylvania evidentiary law is controlling with regard to the admissibility of the death certificate. She also contends that along with the Federal Rules of Evidence, Pennsylvania law is looked to with regard to the admissibility of the coroner's certificate and pathologist's report. The appellee maintains that the Federal Rules of Evidence control these evidentiary issues.

We hold that the Federal Rules of Evidence govern the admissibility of documentary evidence in Federal diversity cases.*fn3 Kingsley v. Baker/Beech-Nut Corp., 546 F.2d 1136, 1140 (5th Cir. 1977); Conway v. Chemical Leaman Tank Lines, Inc., 525 F.2d 927, 930 (5th Cir. 1976). See United Telecommunications v. American Tel. & Communications Corp., 536 F.2d 1310, 1316 (10th Cir. 1976). The rules were enacted by Congress to "govern proceedings in the courts of the United States". Rule 101. While the rules do show a desire by Congress to defer to state law in diversity cases on such matters as presumptions (Rule 302), privileges (Rule 501) and competency (Rule 601), there is no similar deference concerning the admissibility of documentary evidence.

The law is well settled that we are to review a trial judge's discretionary determination using the "manifestly erroneous" standard. Atlantic Mutual Insurance Co. v. Lavino Shipping Co., 441 F.2d 473 (3d Cir. 1971); United States v. Lopez, 543 F.2d 1156, 1158 (5th Cir. 1976) Cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1111, 97 S. Ct. 1150, 51 L. Ed. 2d 566 (1977). An examination of the record indicates that the limitation imposed on the admission of the documents did not violate the Federal Rules of Evidence. Under Rule 403, a trial judge can exclude relevant evidence "if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice . . .".

The following factors support our conclusion that the trial judge's ruling was not "manifestly erroneous". The death certificate and coroner's certificate report describe the cause of death as asphyxia due to aspiration of gastric contents due to acute ethanol intoxication, and conclude that death was accidental. However, the probative value of these documents undoubtedly was slight, because they were prepared prior to October 16, 1974, when the toxicologist's report was completed.*fn4 Moreover, Dr. Brissie, the consulting pathologist who assisted in the preparation of the necropsy report, testified that he did not serve as a medical examiner for the coroner. He also testified that in view of the information added by the toxicologist's report, he certainly would amend the cause of death form. (Tr. 207-209)

To be balanced against the probative value is the evidence's prejudicial effect. Dr. Brissie testified that he was neither requested to investigate this death, nor informed of the precise language of the accidental death provision of the policy. (Tr. 209-210). It is apparent that if the documents had been freely admitted into evidence, without limitation on content, the jury would have been misled into believing that the documents were based on a comprehensive investigation grounded on complete information and that Dr. Brissie's conclusion as to the manner of death took into consideration the language used in the policy.

In addition, it must be noted that the coroner is required to make a determination regarding the cause of death. Though he is to determine whether the death was a homicide, a suicide or an accident, and is to conclude whether it was natural or undetermined, his decision is not binding for purposes of suit, for it is used merely for ...


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