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 Russell S. Buhite
“Suicide by Cop” Excluded Under Life Policy
By Russell S. Buhite
If an insured decides to goad police offers into shooting and killing him, can a life insurer deny coverage under the suicide exclusion? In North American Co. for Life and Health Insurance v. Caldwell et al., 55 F.4th 867 (11th Cir. 2022), the Eleventh Circuit addressed just such a scenario. In this case, Caldwell had shown “signs of suicidal intent” on Oct. 8, 2020, after he learned his wife, Michelle Caldwell, wanted a divorce. His wife eventually called 911 to report that her husband was in the garage with several firearms and that he “wanted to die by law enforcement.” Id. at 869. Although police officers who responded to the scene tried urging the insured to surrender peacefully, when he lifted a rifle apparently to fire at the officers, they shot and killed him. Id.
At the time of his death Caldwell held two life insurance policies with North American with each carrying a $1 million death benefit. One of the policies named an irrevocable trust managed by trustee Michael Harner as beneficiary, while the other named Michelle as beneficiary. The carrier, relying on the suicide exclusions, denied coverage for the beneficiaries’ claims. Id. at 868. The carrier then filed a declaratory judgment action in the S.D. Florida based on the exclusions in the two policies. Id. at 867. On motion for judgment on the pleadings filed by the beneficiaries, U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon granted their motion holding that “[t]he plain meaning of the term ‘suicide’ encompasses the act of killing oneself — not the killing of a person by another.” North American Co. for Life and Health Ins. v. Caldwell, 580 F.Supp.3d 1265 (S.D. Fla. 2022). The district court’s decision found that the exclusions were clear and unambiguous in failing to exclude death caused by another. Id. at 1271.
The North American policy exclusions were nearly identical in stating that “If the Insured commits suicide, while sane or insane, within two years from the Policy Date, Our liability is limited to an amount equal to the total premiums paid.” 580 F.Supp.3d at 1267.
In the district court, the beneficiaries argued that the death, directly caused by the SWAT team shooting the insured, was more akin to a homicide than a suicide where the decedent actively pulls the trigger. Id. at 1269. Following consideration of the arguments, Judge Cannon held that, “based on the plain terms of the policies and the undisputed fact that SWAT team officers shot and killed Justin on October 8, 2020, Justin did not commit “suicide,” and hence the “suicide” exclusion in the Policies does not apply to preclude coverage.” Id. at 1269. In arriving at the decision below, the court noted that the policies did not define “suicide” so it applied an “everyday
Life, Health & Disability Law

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