Do life insurers have an obligation to check databases to determine whether their insureds have died? I recently came across a new class action filing in Stevenson v. Western & Southern Mutual Holding Company, No. CV 11 755966 (Ohio Court of Common Pleas, Cuyahoga County) that makes such a claim. (E-mail me if you would like a copy of the complaint.) The plaintiff alleges that she is an insured under a life insurance policy and is 79 years old, and therefore her actuarial probability of mortality is purportedly 74%. She seeks to sue on behalf of a class of policyholders under life insurance policies issued by the defendant, who have an actuarial probability of death of 70% or higher, or alternatively, on behalf of a class of policyholders who have died but no claim has been made for policy proceeds. She seeks declaratory and injunctive relief ordering the defendants to check the “Death Master File” maintained by the Social Security Administration on an annual basis to determine whether policyholders in the putative class are deceased, and also seeks interest on policy proceeds due to putative class members but not yet paid, and other relief. She also claims that the failure to conduct research on whether insureds have died is a breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.
I found following paragraph in the complaint a bit humorous:
Upon death and/or upon the instances of dementia, Class Members themselves become incapable of conveying the fact of death or often even of impending death, to the Defendants.
Even in litigation, presumably there can be no dispute that a person who has died cannot convey the fact of death to the insurer. And how can someone really know for sure whether a notice of “impending death” would be accurate? People with a 70% probability of death might live another 20 or 30 years. For as long as life insurance policies have existed the task of providing notice of death has necessarily fallen on the beneficiaries.
Some interesting issues I see here are:
- How does a policyholder who is still alive and has the capacity to file a lawsuit (and presumably the capacity to inform her beneficiaries of the existence of her life insurance policy) have any standing to bring this kind of suit? Simply because she would like to help out others who might not be able to inform their beneficiaries of the existence of a policy?
- Even if an insurer were deemed to have an obligation to check the Social Security Administration database, what if the database is wrong about whether someone is alive or dead? The government is not infallible. How far would an insurer have to go to determine the accuracy of the information? Would next-of-kin sue for emotional distress if they received a letter from a life insurance company indicating that mom or dad had died when that was not true? What if the beneficiaries’ contact information is outdated or inaccurate – would an insurer have to try to track them down?
- Imagine if this were extended to other kinds of insurance. Does a homeowners’ insurer have an obligation to check on your house every year to see if you have any damage? Does an automobile insurer have an obligation to check on your car to see if it has damage? Should a health insurer be pestering you if you did not go to your physical? Does a title insurer need to check on whether your neighbor’s garage is encroaching on your property? The answer to all of these questions seems to be obviously “No,” but why should life insurance be different?