Many life insurance policies contain exclusions that prevent the recovery of any benefits if the insured commits suicide. (In many policies, the suicide exclusion is only effective for two years from the date of issuance of the policy.) Under Tennessee law, if there is inadequate proof to determine if the death was by accident or suicide, or if the proof is conflicting or equally balanced, courts will presume the death was an accident. This is an important rule because, in many cases, it is not clear how the insured died.
For example, in Smith v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 2012 WL 405504 (M.D. Tenn. 2012), facts in the record indicated both that Gary Smith, the life insured (“Smith”), committed suicide, and that he died accidentally. The Defendant (“Prudential”) argued that Smith staged his suicide to make it look like a hunting accident, and noted that the medical examiner ruled Smith’s death a suicide. In further support of its theory that Smith took his own life, Prudential also pointed to the nature of the contact wound, the location and direction of the shot, and to the fact that Smith was an experienced hunter who Prudential asserted was too skilled to have shot himself accidentally.
Prudential also argued that Smith had a motive to take his own life because he was faced with sudden and overwhelming debts triggered by a disastrous business partnership. The insurer also rested on the fact that he died just five weeks after doubling the limits on his life insurance policy.