Posted On: March 19, 2012 by The Berniard Law Firm

Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Finds Missing Health Information Not a Bar to Life Insurance Recovery

When individuals apply for life insurance, several application forms must be submitted. Amongst these forms is a history of the applicant’s medical history. Based on this history, and a variety of other factors, insurance companies will either accept the application and set a premium that must be paid to obtain the insurance, or deny the application for pre-existing conditions. However, errors, omissions, and accidents occur during this application process and can cause several legal issues to arise when a life insurance policy needs to be paid out.

This situation arose in Foster v. United of Omaha. In that case, an individual sought to change her life insurer, but when the paperwork was arranged and sent to her, the medical history page was absent. The individual signed all of the paperwork and sent it back to the insurance company. Without any red flags regarding the individual’s medical history, United extended $1 million worth of life insurance to her. No physical health examination of the individual took place and the policy was extended based on the blank medical history paperwork.

The individual, after discovering that she was at high risk for cardiovascular disease, sought an addendum to the insurance policy to raise the payout to $2 million. To complete the policy change, the individual had to sign additional paperwork stating that her health condition had not changed since the issuance of the original policy. Because the individual never signed anything for the original policy claiming poor health, she signed the addendum stating that her health had not changed.

After some time, the individual passed away of lung cancer. United conducted an investigation and discovered that, prior to the issuance of the original coverage, the individual had been treated for heart disease, chest pain, and lung ailments. Based on these findings, coupled with the fact that the addendum stated that the individual’s health hadn’t changed, United refused to pay the policy out. The individual’s trustee brought suit against United, seeking payment of the policy.

Several insurance forms, including the one in Foster’s case, contain language that states “incorrect or misleading information may void this policy from its effective date.” Thus, courts have established that an insurance company, in order to rescind a policy on these grounds, must establish that statements made in the form were false, that those misrepresentations were made with an actual intent to deceive, and that the false statements materially affected the insurance company’s acceptance of risk. The most difficult of these elements to establish is the insured’s intent when making false statements. In these types of cases, courts often look to the attending circumstances to determine whether or not the insured had knowledge of the falsity.

In the Foster case, United failed to carry its burden of proof in establishing that the insured intended to deceive United. Though the individual did not claim her medical ailments in the policy application, the paperwork for the original policy was never made available to her. Thus, the insured could not be held responsible for claiming no change in her health when, in fact, it had not changed since the issuance of the original policy. The insured thought she was telling the truth, and therefore could not be held to have intended to deceive the insurer. This finding places responsibility on the insurer to ensure that all paperwork is provided and explained in a clear, reasonable manner. This avoids consumer confusion and creates an efficient market.

Many insurance companies claim that truthfulness is a condition precedent to policy coverage. This means that the policy will only extend its coverage upon the fulfillment of truthful statements required by the applicant. However, whether or not something is a condition precedent is a matter of contract interpretation. In the Foster case, for example, the court held that the language in the addendum that stated “incorrect or misleading information provided herein may void this policy from its effective date” was permissive. The use of “may” in this type of contract suggests that misleading information provided by the applicant might void the policy, but on the other hand, it might not. Such permissive language will never be held to be a condition precedent in insurance disputes.

With these rules at hand, the court in the Foster case found that United was not entitled to withhold the policy payment. Such a finding solidifies courts’ standing in placing responsibility on insurance companies to provide accurate assessment of insurance coverage and risk. Placing this burden on insurance applicants would carry market chilling potential. In addition, search costs could rise and those who were inexperienced with insurance applications would be prone to making mistakes that would stifle courts with insurance interpretation disputes.

It is easy to see that problems often arise when dealing with insurance policy claims. A deep understanding of the insurance process and its legalities is a necessity, requiring the experience of a practicing attorney. If you or your company have found yourself in an insurance dispute, please contact the Berniard Law Firm.