“Suicide by Cop” Is Covered by Suicide Exclusion in Insurance Policy

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From N. Am. Co. for Life & Health Ins. v. Caldwell, decided Thursday by the Eleventh Circuit, in an opinion by Chief Judge William Pryor, joined by Judges Robin Rosenbaum and Stanley Marcus:

This appeal requires us to decide whether a life-insurance policy excludes from coverage a death resulting from suicide-by-cop. North American Company for Life and Health Insurance issued two policies for the life of Justin Caldwell that excluded “suicide” from coverage. According to the insurance company’s complaint, Justin successfully carried out a plan to provoke police officers to shoot and kill him. North American sought a declaratory judgment that it did not owe the policies’ beneficiaries. But the district court ruled that Justin died “as a result of being shot by another person,” not “suicide,” and granted a judgment on the pleadings in favor of the beneficiaries. Because the ordinary meaning of “suicide” includes suicide-by-cop, we vacate and remand….

North American issued two insurance policies for the life of Justin Caldwell. On November 9, 2018, it issued a policy that named an irrevocable trust managed by trustee Michael Harner as beneficiary. On July 9, 2020, it issued a policy that named Michelle Caldwell, Justin’s wife, as beneficiary. Each policy provided a $1 million death benefit. Each also contained an essentially identical clause that excluded suicide from coverage under the policy. That clause read, “SUICIDE—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.”

On October 8, 2020, Justin began showing signs of suicidal intent after learning that Michelle wanted a divorce. According to his mother, Justin called his parents to say goodbye at 3:00 a.m. Later that morning, he told Michelle that he was “waiting for the police to come and kill [him].” And around 7:00 a.m, Michelle called 911 to report “that Justin was ‘suicidal,’ that he was in the family garage in possession of a rifle, a shotgun, and another firearm, that he was ‘in the process of loading the weapons,’ that he ‘wanted to die by law enforcement,’ and that he ‘wanted to commit suicide by cop.'”

Police officers soon arrived at Justin and Michelle’s residence, where Michelle warned them that Justin “want[ed] to die” and “intended to start shooting until law enforcement shot him.” Officers tried to de-escalate the situation by urging Justin to surrender peacefully. In response, Justin cursed at the officers and ran to his truck to retrieve his rifle. The officers fired non-lethal rubber bullets to deter him, but Justin reached the truck, “grabbed the rifle, spun around, and lifted the rifle to shoot the [officers].” The officers then shot and killed Justin….

We must determine whether the word “suicide” in Justin’s life insurance policies describes Justin’s behavior when he intentionally provoked police officers to kill him—that is, when he committed what is colloquially known as suicide-by-cop….

To our knowledge, no American court has decided this question in a precedential opinion, so we write on a clean slate. The beneficiaries submit that suicide is “the first person act of taking one’s own life.” (Cleaned up.) According to the beneficiaries’ argument, the method matters in that a person commits suicide only when he dies by his own hand. North American favors a broader definition that includes a person’s act when he intends to die and achieves that end.

We agree with North American. A death is a suicide when a person intentionally causes his own death. As the Florida Supreme Court put it, “the words death ‘by his own hand or act’ should not be construed literally, but to mean death as a result of an intent on the part of the insured to take his own life.” The requirements for a suicide are a person’s intent to die, his voluntary act on that intent, and his resultant death. The specific method is irrelevant.

English-language and legal dictionaries confirm that the ordinary meaning of “suicide” covers any method used by someone to end his own life, including the provocation of an officer into shooting him. Suicide is an “[a]ct or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally.” [Other definitions omitted. -EV] Under all these definitions, a person must do some act to commit suicide, but no definition restricts the meaning to only a limited set of qualifying acts that involve no third parties, such that Justin’s actions would be excluded. In other words, these definitions do not require that the suicidal act be the final, fatal blow. Even more persuasively, definitions of the specific term “suicide-by-cop” confirm that it is a type of suicide. See, e.g., Suicide-by-cop, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019) (“Slang. A form of suicide in which the suicidal person intentionally engages in life-threatening behavior to induce a police officer to shoot the person”); Suicide by cop, Oxford Eng. Dictionary (3d ed. 2020) (“[A] method of taking one’s own life”).

References to suicide-by-cop in other material, such as scientific journals and the news media, make clear that people from many walks of life understand the word “suicide” to cover Justin’s actions. See, e.g., Ralph H. de Similien & Adamma Okorafor, Case Report, Suicide by Cop: A Psychiatric Phenomenon, 12 Am. J. Psychiatry Residents’ J. 20, 21 (2017) (“Suicide by cop is a form of suicide, and those who have attempted or wish to attempt it should be approached as suicidal.”); Israel Salas-Rodriguez, What Does Suicide by Cop Mean?, U.S. Sun (Apr. 24, 2021), https://www.the-sun.com/news/2765518/meaning-of-the-term-suicide-by-cop-means (“Suicide by cop or suicide by police is a suicide method ….”). American courts, including an appellate court in Florida, share this understanding too, although they have not previously applied it to life insurance policies. See, e.g., Sullivan v. State, 898 So. 2d 105, 106 n.1 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2005) (“‘Suicide-by-cop,’ also known as ‘police-assisted suicide,’ is ‘a form of suicide ….'” (citation omitted) (alteration adopted)); Hainze v. Richards, 207 F.3d 795, 797 n.1 (5th Cir. 2000) (“‘Suicide by cop’ refers to an instance in which a person attempts to commit suicide by provoking the police to use deadly force.”). And common sense supports this understanding. The existence of the term “suicide-by-cop” acknowledges that a person who induces an officer to shoot him has chosen the officer as his instrument in the same way that someone else might have chosen a noose or a needle.

Even if the authorities available to us were less clear, the broader definition of “suicide” would still be most “consistent with the intent of the parties” to the life insurance policies. Life insurers do not make payouts when a person commits suicide for the same reason that home insurers do not pay an arsonist who burns down her own house. As the American Council of Life Insurers explained in an amicus brief, “it is clearly in no one’s interest to create a financial incentive for someone to take their own life.” Liability would thwart the purpose of insurance, which is to protect the insured from “unforeseen events rather than … events that are planned.” So the question in determining whether Justin committed suicide as understood by the parties when they contracted for life insurance is whether Justin planned to end his own life when he provoked the police to kill him. As even the beneficiaries acknowledge, if we construe the facts in North American’s favor, we must assume that he did.

As far as we can tell, the crux of the beneficiaries’ objection to this conclusion is that Justin took his life indirectly. Under their reasoning, that an officer fired the deadly bullet sufficiently detaches Justin’s death from his intent to die such that his death falls outside the ambit of “suicide.” Indeed, the beneficiaries assert that these events are closer to homicide than suicide. They cite to a Maryland decision that, although not involving a suicide-by-cop, opined about how it should be classified: “[W]hen one incites a police officer to use deadly violence, we are … presented with justifiable homicide, if the officer’s use of deadly force is found to be reasonable …. But [we are not] presented with suicide, for the death occurred at the hands of another.” This dictum anomalously invents a directness requirement for suicide not present anywhere else. After all, if a man threw himself before a train, nobody would argue that the conductor had committed homicide.

There is no material distinction. Police officers are trained to, and have little choice but to, use deadly force to stop a civilian who threatens them, their fellow officers, and the public at large. A civilian, aware of this fact, threatens the officers to provoke this predictable and lethal response in the same way that the man who throws himself before a train anticipates the predictable, lethal outcome of being run over. In both cases, a person intentionally causes his own death, even if an external force delivers the fatal blow. In other words, he commits “suicide.” …

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