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BECKHAM v. TRAVELERS INSURANCE COMPANY (01/04/67)

decided: January 4, 1967.

BECKHAM, APPELLANT,
v.
TRAVELERS INSURANCE COMPANY



Appeal from order of Superior Court, Oct. T., 1965, No. 450, reversing judgment of County Court of Philadelphia, Sept. T., 1963, No. 9201-A, in case of Elizabeth Beckham v. The Travelers Insurance Company.

COUNSEL

Charles Polis, with him Polis & Polis, for appellant.

Richard J. Van Roden, with him Pepper, Hamilton & Scheetz, for appellee.

Bell, C. J., Musmanno, Jones, Cohen, Eagen, O'Brien and Roberts, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Roberts. Concurring Opinion by Mr. Justice Musmanno. Dissenting Opinion by Mr. Chief Justice Bell.

Author: Roberts

[ 424 Pa. Page 109]

Andrew Beckham, an employee of Humble Oil & Refining Company, named his mother, Elizabeth, beneficiary under a group life insurance policy issued by The Travelers Insurance Company on the life of Humble's employees. The policy provided for death benefits of $4,000 and also contained a double indemnity provision operative in the event that "bodily injury not hereinafter excepted effected directly and independently of all other causes through accidental means shall be sustained by a Participant while insured under this Part and shall result [in death]." Andrew died on March 21, 1963, as a result of a self-administered overdose of narcotics. Travelers paid Mrs. Beckham the $4,000 due as death benefits but denied liability under the double indemnity provision on the ground that Andrew's death, while admittedly not suicide, did not result from accidental means.

Mrs. Beckham instituted an action in the County Court of Philadelphia for the additional $4,000 where she received a favorable verdict; Travelers' motions for

[ 424 Pa. Page 110]

    judgment n.o.v. or a new trial were dismissed. On appeal to the Superior Court, the trial court was reversed and judgment ordered entered for Travelers. Beckham v. Travelers Ins. Co., 206 Pa. Superior Ct. 488, 214 A.2d 299 (1965) (Wright, J., dissenting); see 70 Dick. L. Rev. 446 (1966). In so ruling, however, that court noted: "Were this a case of first impression in Pennsylvania, we might be inclined to follow the apparent trend of the recent decisions in other jurisdictions [and hold for the plaintiff] but we are bound by the decisions of our Supreme Court." Id. at 497, 214 A.2d at 303. Thereafter we granted Mrs. Beckham's petition for allocatur.

The question posed on this appeal then is whether we shall continue to adhere to the distinction embodied in our case law with respect to insurance policies providing death benefits if the insured dies "through accidental means." We have in the past subscribed to the doctrine that recovery should be denied if the insured's death, although unintentional, resulted from an intentional act of the deceased, but that recovery should be permitted when the proximate cause of death was itself the result of an unforeseen or unexpected event. E.g., Frame v. Prudential Ins. Co., 358 Pa. 103, 56 A.2d 76 (1948); O'Neill v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 345 Pa. 232, 26 A.2d 898 (1942); Arnstein v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 329 Pa. 158, 196 Atl. 491 (1938); Hesse v. Traveler's Ins. Co., 299 Pa. 125, 149 Atl. 96 (1930); Pollock v. United States Mut. Acc. Ass'n, 102 Pa. 230 (1883); Zuliskey v. Prudential Ins. Co., 159 Pa. Superior Ct. 363, 48 A.2d 141 (1946); Semancik v. Continental Cas. Co., 56 Pa. Superior Ct. 392 (1914).

The purported distinction between accidental means and accidental results stems from its articulation in United States Mut. Acc. Ass. v. Barry, 131 U.S. 100, 9 S. Ct. 755 (1889), where, in affirming the correctness of the trial judge's charge, the Supreme Court of the

[ 424 Pa. Page 111]

United States stated: "The court properly instructed . . . that the question was, whether there was anything accidental, unforeseen, involuntary, unexpected, in the act of jumping, from the time the deceased left the platform until he alighted on the ground; that the term 'accidental' was used in the policy in its ordinary, popular sense, as meaning 'happening by chance; unexpectedly taking place; not according to the usual course of things; or not as expected;' that, if a result is such as follows from ordinary means, voluntarily employed, in a not unusual or unexpected way, it cannot be called a result effected by accidental means; but that if, in the act which precedes the injury, something unforeseen, unexpected, unusual occurs which produces the injury, then the injury has resulted through accidental means." 131 U.S. at 121. Almost half a century later, the Barry distinction was reaffirmed in Landress v. Phoenix Mut. Life Ins. Co., 291 U.S. 491, 54 S. Ct. 461 (1934).

In a now famous dissent Mr. Justice Cardozo, predicted: "The attempted distinction between accidental results and accidental means will plunge this branch of the law into a Serbonian Bog. 'Probably it is true to say that in the strictest sense and dealing with the region of physical nature there is no such thing as an accident.' On the other hand, the average man is convinced that there is, and so certainly is the man who takes out a policy of accident insurance. It is his reading of the policy that is to be accepted as our guide, with the help of the established rule that ambiguities and uncertainties are to be resolved against the company. The proposed distinction will ...


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