In the May 24, 2018 issue of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, the Daily Journal published an article written by the McKennon Law Group’s Robert J. McKennon. The article addresses a recent case by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that if an insured with a preexisting medical condition suffers from an accidental injury, the insured is not precluded from recovery under an accidental death and dismemberment policy if the preexisting condition did not substantially contribute to the injury. Insurers often attempt to use preexisting conditions as an excuse to deny payment under AD&D policies. This recent Ninth Circuit opinion helps insureds by making it clear that a preexisting condition’s slight contribution to an injury is insufficient to bar compensation.
This article is posted with the permission of the Los Angeles Daily Journal.
Preexisting Condition Doesn’t Preclude Coverage
The 9th Circuit ruled that if an insured with a preexisting medical condition gets in an accident, but the condition does not substantially contribute to the injury, the insured can recover.
By Robert J. McKennon
Insurance policies providing accidental death and dismemberment benefits are fairly common. Many employers provide this important insurance for their employees. These policies are often governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. A large percentage of AD&D policies exclude coverage for accidental injuries “caused or contributed by” a preexisting medical condition. If a preexisting condition led to the injury, even in a small way, most insurers will deny an AD&D claim. Many people have preexisting conditions that they have managed for years that could be relevant to AD&D coverage. Conditions such as diabetes, for example, can prevent wounds caused by an accident from healing properly, potentially leading to dismemberment.
If an insured with a preexisting medical condition gets in an accident, but the condition does not substantially cause or contribute to the dismembering injury, does the preexisting condition bar an AD&D claim? The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a recently published case, Dowdy v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 2018 DJDAR 4576 (9th Cir. May 16, 2018), answered this question in the negative and explained that such insureds are not necessarily barred from obtaining payment under an AD&D policy. Tommy Dowdy suffered from diabetes. Unfortunately, Dowdy was in a car accident in which his car rolled off California State Route 4. He suffered extensive injuries, including a “semi-amputated left ankle.” Dowdy was hospitalized and discharged after a month-long stay. However, his ankle failed to improve in part because of his diabetes and because he suffered from a persistent leg infection. Five months after the accident, Dowdy’s left leg was amputated below the knee.
Dowdy and his wife were covered by an AD&D policy provided by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. The policy was governed by ERISA. The policy stated in the Coverage Provision that:
If You or a Dependent sustain an accidental injury that is the Direct and Sole Cause of a Covered Loss described in the SCHEDULE OF BENEFITS, Proof of the accidental injury and Covered Loss must be sent to Us. When We receive such Proof We will review the claim and, if We approve it, will pay the insurance in effect on the date of the injury.
Direct and Sole Cause means that the Covered Loss occurs within 12 months of the date of the accidental injury and was a direct result of the accidental injury, independent of other causes[.]
The policy also included an exclusion which stated that MetLife would not pay “for any loss caused or contributed to by . . . physical . . . illness or infirmity, or the diagnosis or treatment of such illness or infirmity[.]”
Dowdy filed a claim under his AD&D policy with MetLife. MetLife denied the claim on the basis that Dowdy’s diabetes contributed to the medical problems that resulted in the amputation. Dowdy then filed an administrative appeal with MetLife challenging the claim denial. MetLife upheld its denial determination, concluding that the accident was not the “direct and sole cause” of the amputation “independent of other causes” as set forth in the Coverage Provision, and that the policy’s Illness or Infirmity Exclusion applied because Dowdy’s diabetes contributed to the loss.
Dowdy then sued MetLife. Both parties filed cross-motions for judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52. The district court found that diabetes caused or contributed to the need for amputation, affirmed the denial of benefits and entered judgment in favor of MetLife. Dowdy appealed to the 9th Circuit.
The court reversed the district court, first reviewing its holding in McClure v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 84 F.3d 1129 (9th Cir. 1996). There, the court determined that where the applicable plan language is inconspicuous, the “policyholder reasonably would expect coverage if the accident were the predominant or proximate cause of the disability.” If, however, the applicable language is conspicuous, recovery could be barred if a preexisting condition substantially contributed to the loss, “even though the claimed injury was the predominant or proximate cause of the disability.”
It was undisputed that Dowdy’s diabetes condition contributed to the complications with his wounds and thus to his leg amputation. MetLife therefore argued that the accident was not the “direct and sole cause of the loss,” which was not a covered loss. The court rejected this contention, explaining that “[i]n order to be considered a substantial contributing factor for the purpose of a provision restricting coverage to direct and sole causes of injury, a pre-existing condition must be more than merely a contributing factor.” (Emphasis original).
The court looked to a variety of sources to determine what should be deemed to be “a substantial cause.” For example, one respected source explained that the word “substantial” denotes that the conduct had an effect strong enough that it would lead “reasonable [people] to regard it as a cause” in the more concrete sense and not just in some “philosophic sense.” Ultimately, the court held that there must be evidence showing that the preexisting ailment contributed a “significant magnitude of causation.” The preexisting condition cannot “merely [be] related to the injury[.]”
The 9th Circuit ruled that there was no evidence in the administrative record that Dowdy’s diabetes substantially caused or contributed to the amputation of his leg. Thus, under the policy’s Coverage Provision, Dowdy was eligible to collect policy benefits.
The court also rejected MetLife’s position that the exclusion applied since Dowdy’s diabetes condition was a “cause” of or “contributed to” the amputation, noting that exclusions are narrowly construed and that the “substantial contribution” standard applied in interpreting the exclusion. Because there was no evidence that Dowdy’s diabetes condition substantially caused the amputation, the court reversed the district court, finding that Dowdy was entitled to payment under the policy.
Insurers often attempt to use preexisting conditions to deny payment under AD&D policies. Given how common chronic conditions are in modern life, it is not surprising that insurers often have numerous arguments as to why they should not be forced to pay under these policies. However, the 9th Circuit’s decision gives effect to “the policy of [ERISA] to protect . . . the interests of participants in employee benefit plans and their beneficiaries” and to “increase the likelihood that participants and beneficiaries . . . receive their full benefits.” 29 U.S.C. Sections 1001(b), 1001b(c)(3). Insureds reasonably expect that simply having a preexisting condition that is somewhat related to the injury is not sufficient to deny an accident claim under an AD&D policy. Whether it is diabetes or countless other conditions, persons with a preexisting condition may still have the right to collect under an AD&D policy as long as the preexisting condition is not a substantial cause of the injury. Plan participants are well served under Dowdy now that insurers like MetLife cannot argue that inconsequential preexisting conditions bar coverage for policy benefits that they desperately need.
Robert J. McKennon is a shareholder of McKennon Law Group PC in its Newport Beach office. His practice specializes in representing policyholders in life, health and disability insurance, insurance bad faith, ERISA and unfair business practices litigation. He can be reached at (949) 387-9595 or [email protected] His firm’s California Insurance Litigation Blog can be found at www.californiainsurancelitigation.com.