Cultrona v. Nationwide Life Ins. Co., No. 13-3585 (6th Cir. 2014)Annotate this Case
Nicole discovered Shawn’s body in their Ohio home. Shawn had gone out drinking the night before, while Nicole spent the night at a friend’s house. The Medical Examiner’s Office reported the cause of death as “[a]sphyxia by extreme and restricted position (positional asphyxia)” and the manner of death as “[a]cute ethanol intoxication ... ACCIDENT: Prolonged and extreme hypertension of neck and torso while intoxicated.” Shawn’s blood-alcohol level at the time of autopsy was .22%. Nicole filed a $212,000 claim for accidental-death benefits with the Plan, which covers “injury” as a result of an “accident,” defined as “an unintended or unforeseeable event or occurrence which happens suddenly and violently.” No benefits will be paid if the “Covered Person [is] deemed and presumed, under the law of the locale … to be under the influence of alcohol or intoxicating liquors.” Nationwide directed denial of Nicole’s claim, citing Exclusion 12, but quoting an earlier version that provided: “The Covered Person being deemed and presumed … to be driving or operating a motor vehicle while under the influence…” Later, based on amended Exclusion 12, Nationwide upheld the denial; its appeals panel affirmed. Nicole filed suit, asserting claims under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and a common-law breach-of-fiduciary-duty claim. The district court entered judgment in favor of the defendants, but agreed with Nicole that the appeals panel had breached its statutory duty to provide her with Plan-related documents upon written request, and imposed a penalty of $55 per day ($8,910). The Sixth Circuit affirmed.