U.S. Tenth Circuit - The FindLaw 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

ERISA Action Addressing Whether Drunk Driving Death Was an "Accident"

LaAsmar v. Phelps Dodge Corp., No. 07-1267, concerned an ERISA action against an insurer based on the denial of plaintiffs' claim for accidental death benefits because, at the time of the crash, plaintiffs' son's blood alcohol level was almost three times the limit permitted under Colorado law.  The court of appeals affirmed judgment for plaintiffs, holding that 1) although defendant eventually denied plaintiffs' claim on administrative review, it did so substantially outside the time period within which the plan vested it with discretion to interpret and apply the plan, and thus it was not acting within the discretion provided by the plan; 2) the decedent died, not of alcohol intoxication, but as a result of head and internal injuries suffered in a motor vehicle crash; 3) "accident," as used in the policy, extended coverage to an unintended death resulting from an vehicle crash where the driver had a blood alcohol content approximately 2.8 times the legal limit and where the vehicle was being driven approximately twenty miles an hour over the speed limit on a two-lane rural road at night; and 4) because plaintiffs failed to request an award of attorney's fees in a proper manner, the district court did not err in declining to award attorney's fees.

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