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A Manslaughter Conviction May Not Prohibit Receipt of ERISA Life Insurance Benefits

The “Slayer rule” is a common law doctrine that prevents inheritance by someone who murders someone from whom he or she stands to inherit.  Many states have enacted slayer rules to prevent murderers from inheriting from their victims, including life insurance policy proceeds.  A recent case out of New York,  Prudential Ins. Co. of Am. v. Govel, No. 116CV0297LEKDJS, 2017 WL 2455106 (N.D.N.Y. June 6, 2017), considered a novel question about whether or not a second-degree vehicular manslaughter conviction necessarily prevents a beneficiary from receiving life insurance proceeds.  The court found that it does not.

The Govel case involves an unfortunate set of facts.  As summarized by the court, on September 30, 2014, Colleen and Govel, her fiancé, were entertaining a friend at their house in Wright, New York.  The couple had an eight-month-old baby who was also at the house that night.  Govel claimed to have consumed only two or three beers.  Govel decided to take Colleen for a ride on his motorcycle late that night.  At around 12:50 AM, Govel lost control of his motorcycle while maneuvering a curve that had a suggested speed of thirty miles per hour.  However, Govel was going approximately sixty-four to sixty-nine miles per hour as he began to lose control of the bike.  As Govel lost control of the bike, it fell on its left side and slid across a grassy shoulder and lawn area before crashing into basketball hoop poll against which Colleen hit her head and died.  A post-crash investigation concluded that the crash resulted primarily from speeding and improper acceleration on the part of Govel.  His intoxication by alcohol was considered to be a contributing factor.  Colleen had a life insurance policy worth $154,000.

Under New York law, one cannot take property by inheritance or will from a benefactor whom he has murdered.  It also applies to life insurance proceeds.  Colleen’s brother argued that New York’s slayer rule prohibits Govel from receiving the life insurance proceeds because he pleaded guilty to second-degree vehicular manslaughter.  Govel argued that it would be improper for the court to hold that the slayer rules apply to every conviction for second-degree vehicular manslaughter and that he did not recklessly cause Colleen’s death.

The court analyzed the law and determined that a person could be guilty of second-degree vehicular manslaughter without being reckless.  As such, the court declined to hold that a conviction for second-degree vehicular manslaughter necessarily prohibits someone from receiving the life insurance proceeds of his victim.  Govel was clearly going too fast when he entered the curve but the court found that there is no evidence in the record of how he was handling the motorcycle before he began to negotiate the curve.  A reasonable jury could conclude that Govel was simply criminally negligent rather than reckless in attempting to negotiate the curve at a high speed.  In addition, New York state courts often rely on concrete evidence of recklessness that the defendants knew about a risk or received clear warnings about their risky behavior.  Since a reasonable jury would be entitled to find or not find that Govel recklessly caused Colleen’s death, the court denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment.

If you’ve been denied life insurance benefits and have questions about the reasons given to you by the insurance company, you should consult an experienced ERISA attorney immediately.  In most cases, you are given only 60 days to appeal any claim denial.

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