Stephenson v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 2016 WL 6568085 (M.D. Fla. Nov. 4, 2016)

If you murder someone, you can’t collect on their life insurance policy. This is one of several iterations of the common-law “slayer rule” that’s codified in F.S. 732.802; a statute that gets litigated way more often than most people would guess (see here, here, here). But just because you kill someone doesn’t mean our slayer statute gets triggered. The killing has to be both “intentional” and “unlawful”.

F.S. 732.802(3): “A named beneficiary of a bond, life insurance policy, or other contractual arrangement who unlawfully and intentionally kills the principal obligee or the person upon whose life the policy is issued is not entitled to any benefit under the bond, policy, or other contractual arrangement; and it becomes payable as though the killer had predeceased the decedent.”

But just because you “intentionally” kill someone, doesn’t mean it’s “unlawful”. For example, an individual may lawfully kill in self-defense, an executioner may lawfully kill with the sanction of the State, and a soldier may lawfully kill under the rules of combat. It’s this kind of killing that’s at issue in this case.

Case Study:

This case involves two men, McGriff and Rigby. They got into some kind of fight; Rigby allegedly swung at McGriff, and McGriff responded by doing something that caused Rigby to fall and hit his head. Rigby eventually died from his injuries. McGriff claimed he was acting in self defense. There were no witnesses.

McGriff was the beneficiary of Rigby’s $466,000 life insurance policy. Rigby’s estate contested McGriff’s claim to the insurance money, which caused the insurance company to freeze the account. McGriff then sued the insurance company in this federal action. Rigby’s probate proceeding continued on its own independent parallel track.

McGriff was investigated but never prosecuted. According to the State Attorney, because Rigby died and there were no witnesses, the State would be unable to “rebut all reasonable hypothesis of [McGriff’s] innocence.” So was that the end of the story? No. Under our slayer statute you don’t need a murder conviction for the rule to apply.

F.S. 732.802(5): “… In the absence of a conviction of murder in any degree, the court may determine by the greater weight of the evidence whether the killing was unlawful and intentional for purposes of this section.”

Self Defense = Lawful Killing = No Slayer Statue Violation:

McGriff admitted being the cause of Rigby’s death, but claimed he was acting in self defense. When you kill someone in self defense, that’s an “intentional” act, which means the first prong of the statue was triggered.

Killing in self-defense is considered an intentional act. See Congleton v. Sansom, 664 So. 2d 276, 280 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995). As such, the only issue before the Court is whether McGriff acted unlawfully.

So did the court buy McGriff’s self-defense claim? YES. Apparently there was a prior ruling by the state probate judge involving the same parties that concluded McGriff hadn’t acted unlawfully. Add that ruling to the State Attorney’s decision not to prosecute, and we can all see where this case was headed. Here’s how the federal judge explained her ruling against the slayer-statute claim:

There are no living witnesses to the altercation, and the evidence before the Court regarding the details of the altercation consist of the 911 call, police report, autopsy findings, and the State Attorney’s decision not to prosecute. The Court has considered the fact that McGriff gave conflicting versions of the incident when he called 911 and when the police arrived at the scene. The Court has also considered the other evidence submitted by Harding, including her affidavit that she believed that McGriff and Rigby had a troubled relationship and that McGriff considered Rigby his “sugar daddy.” However, the totality of the evidence before the Court does not prove that it is more likely than not that McGriff acted unlawfully when he pushed Rigby, rather than that he acted in self-defense. Given due consideration to the record before the Court, the Court concludes that Harding has not and cannot show that McGriff acted unlawfully when he pushed Rigby, and as such, the Slayer Statute does not apply. This Court notes that its determination that the Slayer Statute does not apply is consistent with the state probate court’s determination on the same set of facts with the same parties before it.

Note to readers:

The linked-to order was published last year. I try to report on cases as they’re published. I don’t always succeed. This blog post is part of an ongoing project to report on older cases I wasn’t able to get to previously.