Autoerotic Asphyxiation and Accidental Death Benefits

Over the years, courts deciding ERISA cases involving accidental death due to autoerotic asphyxiation have issued mixed opinions as to whether benefits should be payable. In a recent decision, Wightman v. Securian Life Ins. Co., No. CV 18-11285-DJC, 2020 WL 1703772 (D. Mass. Apr. 8, 2020), a district court upheld the denial of accidental death benefits due to the insured’s death caused by autoerotic asphyxiation gone awry.

Plaintiff Anne Wightman sued Securian Life Insurance Company after it denied the accidental death benefit claim filed as a result of her husband, Dr. Colin Wightman. This policy expressly excluded death when caused directly or indirectly by, among other things, “suicide or attempted suicide, whether sane or insane . . . intentionally self-inflicted injury or attempt at self-inflected injury, while sane insane” and “bodily or mental infirmity, illness or disease.”

Dr. Wightman had been in therapy since the late 1990’s for his interest in sexual asphyxia. Dr. Wightman told his wife about his interest in “sex-related strangulation” in 2007 after he engaged in a sexual encounter that led to a complaint to the police, and Dr. Wightman losing his job. Dr. Wightman sought mental health treatment as a result from June 2007 through April 2010. He also was prescribed medication to help treat his addiction, which he took through 2015. The court noted that records from his mental health treatment highlighted Dr. Wightman as having “high risk sexual behavior [that] has led to possibility of charges for sexual assault.”

Dr. Wightman was found dead by his wife, naked and unmoving in their bathroom with a belt looped around his neck that was suspended over the top of the bathroom door. When Ms. Wightman opened the bathroom door, Dr. Wightman fell to the floor.

Securian denied Ms. Wightman’s initial claim based on the policy’s exclusion for intentional self-inflicted injury or attempt as self-inflected injury, and because the death “in this manner would not be deemed unintended, unexpected and unforeseen.”

Ms. Wightman appealed the decision with expert reports explaining that autoerotic asphyxiation is performed for the purpose of sexual pleasure, and not to harm oneself and that Dr. Wightman was psychologically healthy without any tendency for self-harming activities.

Securian upheld the denial on appeal, this time denying the claim based on the self-inflicted injury exclusion and the exclusion based on injury caused by “mental infirmity, illness or disease.” The denial letter explained that although Dr. Wightman may not have meant to kill himself, he should have expected that death was “not unforeseen,” and that the injury did not occur directly and independently of all other causes.

The court concluded on de novo review that 1) the accident was not a covered loss, and 2) the self-inflicted injury exclusion precludes coverage even if the loss was covered. In deciding the accident was not a covered loss, the court found that “[t]his Circuit has rejected statistical arguments about the reasonableness of the insured’s expectation of survival when they deliberately engaged in mortally risky behavior.” The court likened Plaintiff’s argument that there is a less than 1 in one million chance of dying from autoerotic asphyxiation to a similar “statistical likelihood” of not dying from playing Russian roulette. Because death was possible, it cannot be said to have resulted from an “accidental bodily injury which was unintended, unexpected and unforeseen.”

In deciding that the self-inflicted injury exclusion applied, the court rejected the distinction adopted by other circuits between initial strangulation for pleasure from that which causes death, finding the former a covered loss. Even if this were not the case, the court noted that Dr. Wightman’s expectation that he would not suffer any injury beyond the initial strangulation was unreasonable.

The attorneys at Kantor & Kantor, LLP represent insureds in denied accidental death and life insurance benefit claims.  If you have a denied claim, contact us for a free case evaluation at 800-446-7529 or use our online contact form.

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