No. 155 April Term, 1978, Appeal from the Judgments of August 31, 1977, of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, Civil Division, at Nos. 3262, 3263, 3264, October Term, 1973.
John M. Silvestri, Pittsburgh, for appellant.
James A. Mollica, Jr., Pittsburgh, for appellee.
Cercone, President Judge, and Wieand and Hoffman, JJ. Hoffman, J., concurs in the result.
[ 273 Pa. Super. Page 594]
On October 12, 1972, the body of Dr. Carmen A. DeChesaro was found hanging from the passenger side of his Mercedes-Benz automobile. The safety belt from the passenger seat had been looped twice around his neck. He was dead of strangulation. DeChesaro's life insurance carrier, Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, refused to pay the accidental death benefits provided by three separate policies of insurance, contending the doctor had committed suicide. An action was brought by Pittsburgh National Bank, trustee, to recover such benefits.
Evidence produced during eleven days of trial disclosed that sometime after 4:30 o'clock, A.M., on October 12, 1972 decedent's car left a two-lane road in Allegheny County, went over an embankment and came to rest approximately seventy-five feet from the roadway. No tire marks were evident on the surface of the road. Examination of the
[ 273 Pa. Super. Page 595]
vehicle revealed that the lights had been turned off, the gearshift was in "park" and there was no interior damage. The only significant exterior damage apparent was on the hood and left front fender; and the glass of the side window adjacent to the passenger's seat was shattered. In other respects, the vehicle was intact. A subsequent examination disclosed no mechanical failures.
The body of the decedent contained no evidence of injury except a small cut on the upper lip and a deep furrow on the back of the neck. The latter was consistent with strangulation caused by the belt found wrapped around his neck. Expert witnesses disagreed about whether death was accidental or self-inflicted. Plaintiff's experts opined that impact had caused the decedent to be propelled across the front seat of the car and through the side window. They testified that during this process his head had became entangled in the non-retractable, lap-shoulder safety belt. Defendant's experts, including the pathologist who performed the autopsy, were of the opinion that the decedent had committed suicide. In support of their opinions, they cited a small size of the window, the compact dimensions of the vehicle's interior, the absence of injury to the decedent, and the double loop of the safety belt. Defendant also showed that the decedent and his wife had had a history of marital difficulties and that a violent argument had taken place a few hours before death occurred. The doctor had struck his wife, then fled from his home, leaving his wife bleeding profusely from the head wound which he had inflicted.
The jury credited the suicide theory and found in favor of the defendant insurer.
On October 13, 1976, six days after trial, plaintiff's counsel filed an affidavit alleging juror misconduct and quoting from an article appearing in the Pittsburgh Press which recited that one of the jurors had made his own inspection of a Mercedes-Benz automobile similar to that of the decedent. The trial ...