Religion and suicide determinations
VOLOKH at law.ucla.edu
Wed May 6 09:03:28 PDT 2009
Any thoughts about this case, Green v. William Penn Life Ins. Co.
http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2009/2009_03586.htm (N.Y. May
5) (emphasis added)? Thanks to Howard Friedman at Religion Clause,
http://religionclause.blogspot.com, for the pointer.
The Appellate Division held that an attempt to prove a death was caused
by suicide must fail as a matter of law, unless suicide is the only
reasonable finding permitted by the evidence. We hold that the Appellate
Division misconstrued the presumption against suicide. It is a guide for
the fact finder, not a rule that compels a result....
Alan Green died on February 20, 2002. His life was insured by defendant
under a $500,000 policy issued December 3, 2001. The policy provided:
"If the insured dies by suicide within two years from the Date of Issue
of this contract, the only death benefit will be the sum of premiums
paid." Plaintiff, Mr. Green's widow, made a claim for the face amount of
the policy. Defendant rejected the claim on the ground that Mr. Green
had died by suicide, and plaintiff brought this action. Considerable
evidence supported defendant's contention that Mr. Green committed
suicide. He was found lying on his bed, with an empty glass on the
nightstand beside him and two empty bottles that had contained
recently-prescribed pain medication in the nightstand drawer. He had
been unemployed for months. He had seen a doctor on the day before his
death; the doctor found him to be in good physical health, but noted
that he had "suicidal thoughts." According to a police report, plaintiff
said on the night of her husband's death that he had been depressed, and
had overdosed on pain medication. She refused to permit an autopsy or a
toxicological examination of his body, saying that such intrusions were
forbidden by Jewish religious law, but she ordered the body cremated in
violation of that religious prohibition.
There was also evidence supporting plaintiff's contention that suicide
was not the cause of death. No suicide note was found. Mr. Green had no
history of mental illness, and had not attempted suicide before. The
doctor who noted his "suicidal thoughts" also quoted him as saying he
was "[n]ot suicidal" and noted that he had "no plans" for suicide. There
was no proof of how long the pill bottles had been empty; plaintiff
offered testimony suggesting that she and her husband might have taken
all the pills in normal doses over a period of weeks. Family members
testified that Mr. Green had behaved normally shortly before his death;
they described him as "upbeat" and "positive."
After a non-jury trial, Supreme Court found that Mr. Green had committed
suicide, and dismissed the complaint. The Appellate Division, with two
Justices dissenting, reversed and directed the entry of judgment for
plaintiff. In reversing, the Appellate Division did not exercise its
factual review power, but held that "the evidence failed as a matter of
law to overcome the presumption against suicide" (id. at 44). It
reasoned that because "there are other reasonable conclusions that may
be drawn from the evidence, aside from suicide," the "application of the
law regarding the presumption against suicide necessitated a directed
verdict in this case" (id. at 40). Defendant appeals as of right,
pursuant to CPLR 5601 (a), and we now reverse. ...
We have never held ... that the presumption against suicide requires
rejection of a claim of suicide as a matter of law. As long as such a
claim finds support in the evidence, a fact finder should decide it. The
presumption, as we said in Wellisch, is "really a rule or guide for the
jury in coming to a conclusion on the evidence" (293 NY at 184). Where
the evidence leaves open two possible findings, it is "the jury's
business to resolve the doubt" (id. at 185). ...
Because there was evidence legally sufficient to support Supreme Court's
decision, the Appellate Division erred in rejecting the finding of
suicide as a matter of law. We remit the case to the Appellate Division,
so that it can exercise its weight of the evidence review power, and
consider any other issues necessary to resolve the case. ...
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