Minnesota Life Insurance Company v. Rings et al
OPINION AND ORDER granting 45 MOTION for Summary Judgment filed by Judy Rings, and denying 47 MOTION for Summary Judgment filed by Executor of the Estate of Teresa Lee Rings. Signed by Magistrate Judge Terence P. Kemp on 3/7/2017. (agm)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO
Minnesota Life Insurance
Case No. 2:16-cv-149
Judy Rings, et al.,
Magistrate Judge Kemp
OPINION AND ORDER
This insurance dispute arose, unfortunately, out of a
murder-suicide that took place on September 2, 2015.
undisputed facts of the case show, on that day, David Rings shot
his wife Teresa and then shot himself.
Mr. Rings had life
insurance through his employer, Abbot Laboratories.
He had named
his wife as the sole beneficiary, but the policies (there are two
of them with identical terms) contain language which specifies
when a named beneficiary who dies at roughly the same time as the
policyholder is still entitled to the proceeds or if someone else
- for example, the policyholder’s parent - is to receive the
That is the crux of the parties’ legal dispute.
For the following reasons, the Court concludes that Judy Rings,
David Rings’ mother, is the proper beneficiary and is entitled to
be paid the life insurance proceeds at issue.
The Court will begin with the pertinent procedural details.
Minnesota Life Insurance Company, the issuer of the policies in
question, filed this interpleader action pursuant to Federal Rule
of Civil Procedure 22.
Minnesota Life is holding the proceeds of
the two insurance policies at issue, a sum of $294,000 plus
interest, until the Court decides who is entitled to it.
competing claimants are Teresa Lee Rings’ Estate (her son, Chase
Lee, being the sole beneficiary of the estate) and Judy Rings,
David Rings’ sole surviving parent.
Minnesota Life moved for leave to deposit funds in an
interest-bearing account, for an injunction, and for its
dismissal from this action.
The two competing claimants have
filed cross-motions for summary judgment.
The Undisputed Facts
The cross-motions for summary judgment are based on a set of
undisputed facts, and the parties agree that the proper
interpretation of the policy language is a pure question of law.
Here are the facts they agree on.
1. Defendant Judy Rings is David Lee Rings' biological
2. At all times relevant to this case, David's
biological father was and is dead.
3. David and Teresa Lee Rings married on October 19,
2009 and were still married on September 2, 2015.
4. Teresa was Defendant Chase Lee's biological mother.
5. Chase is David’s stepson; David was not Chase’s
biological or legally-adoptive father.
6. David never had any biological or legally adopted
7. At approximately 6:40pm on September 2, 2015, David
shot Teresa with a firearm. Teresa was hit six times
and suffered bullet wounds to her finger, hip,
buttocks, back, chin and neck. Teresa died from her
injuries some time between 6:40pm and 7:05pm.
8. Also at approximately 6:40pm on September 2, 2015,
David shot himself with a firearm. David was hit one
time and lost a significant amount of brain matter from
the gunshot wound. David also died from his injuries
some time between 6:40pm and 7:05pm.
9. Both David and Teresa died on September 2, 2015; the
cause of death for each was injury resulting from the
gunshot wounds inflicted by David.
10. Between David and Teresa, it is unknown and
probably unknowable who died first. They both died no
more than twenty-five minutes of the other. The parties
agree that they are currently not aware of facts (other
than Stipulations 6. and 7. above) which indicate who,
if either, died first but do not discount the
possibility that such evidence could hereafter be
11. On September 2, 2015, there were in force two life
insurance policies ("the Policy") issued by Plaintiff.
True and accurate copies of the written versions of the
Policy are attached to the complaint in this case as
Exhibits A and B.
12. Plaintiff originally issued the Policy as part of
and in association with the benefits package which
David received as the result of his employment with
13. David's life is the life which the Policy insured.
14. At some point in time before September 2, 2015,
David designated Teresa as the only beneficiary under
the Policy. During their marriage, David did not
designate any beneficiary other than his wife, Teresa.
15. David and Teresa were both dead when medics entered
the house at approximately 7:05pm.
16. Time of death for both David and Teresa reflects
the time that medics were able to inspect the bodies
and confirm that both were dead.
17. Teresa was alive on September 2, 2015.
The claimants also agree that the outcome of this case
depends on the interpretation of certain language found in both
insurance policies, and agree that this is the key provision:
To whom will we pay the death benefit?
We will pay the death benefit to the beneficiary or
beneficiaries. A beneficiary is named by you to receive
the death benefit to be paid at your death. You may
name one or more beneficiaries. You cannot name the
policyholder or an associated company of the
policyholder as a beneficiary.
You may also choose to name a beneficiary that you
cannot change without the beneficiary’s consent. This
is called an irrevocable beneficiary.
If there is more than one beneficiary, each will
receive an equal share, unless you have requested
another method in writing. To receive the death
benefit, a beneficiary must be living on the date of
your death. In the event a beneficiary is not living on
the date of your death, that beneficiary’s portion of
the death benefit shall be equally distributed to the
remaining surviving beneficiaries. In the event of the
simultaneous deaths of you and a beneficiary, the death
benefit will be paid as if you survived the
If there is no eligible beneficiary, or if the insured
does not name one, we will pay the death benefit to:
(1) the insured’s lawful spouse, if living,
(2) the insured’s natural or legally adopted child
(children) in equal shares, if living, otherwise;
(3) the insured’s parents in equal shares, if
(4) the personal representative of the insured’s
Analysis of the Policy
It is not difficult to see that the next-to-the-last
paragraph just quoted is the crucial one.
Although the Court
will explain each of the claimant’s legal position in more detail
later, the gist of each can be stated simply.
The Estate points
out that Teresa Rings was properly named as a beneficiary, and in
order for her (or her estate) to collect the proceeds, it was
only necessary that she “be living on the date of [David Rings’]
Consequently, the money goes to her estate.
Judy Rings, on the other hand, argues that this
interpretation completely ignores the last sentence of that
She says that this is a case of “simultaneous
If that is so, the policy says that the death benefit
is to be paid “as if [David Rings] survived [Teresa Rings]” - in
other words, to the next person in line.
Because David Rings did
not name an alternate beneficiary and he had neither a living
spouse nor a natural or adopted child, any surviving parent
becomes the payee.
Before determining which one of these is the better
argument, the Court notes that the claimants have addressed two
other issues: (1) does the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act apply
here; and (2) does the Ohio Slayer Statute, Ohio Rev. Code
The claimants appear to agree that because the
life insurance policy addresses the issue of simultaneous deaths,
the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act does not apply, so the Court
will not discuss it further.
That leaves the question of whether
the Ohio Slayer Statute has anything to say about who gets the
proceeds in this type of situation.
The Court first notes that the statute is, by its terms,
It disqualifies only persons convicted of certain
crimes (or persons found incompetent to stand trial after having
been indicted for such crimes) from profiting from their criminal
However, Ohio common law “provides ‘that no one should be
allowed to profit from his [or her] own wrongful conduct.’”
Prudential Ins. Co. of America v. Blanton, 118 F.Supp.3d 980, 982
(N.D. Ohio 2015), citing Shrader v. Equitable Life Assur. Soc. of
U.S., 20 Ohio St.3d 41, 44 (1985).
endorse the same principle.
Federal common law appears to
See, e.g., Metropolitan Life Ins.
Co. v. White, 972 F.2d 122 (5th Cir. 1992).
That principle, however, ordinarily is construed to prevent
a wrongdoer from collecting the proceeds from a policy which
insured the life of the victim.
It says little to nothing about
how a policy on the life of the wrongdoer is to be distributed.
Courts have rejected the argument that the slayer statutes or the
corresponding common law rule extend as far as the only “benefit”
which someone like David Rings obtained by killing Teresa namely, the ability to direct the proceeds of his life insurance
policies to the next person in line after Teresa.
Caterpillar, Inc. v. Estate of Lacefield-Cole, 520 F.Supp.2d 989
(N.D. Ill. 2007).
Ohio law has been interpreted in the same
See Zemski v. Kish, 1992 WL 238638 (Lucas Co. App.
Sept. 25, 1992).
Consequently, the Court concludes that under
either federal or Ohio law, the “slayer principle” does not
affect Judy Rings’ ability to obtain the proceeds of the policies
which insured her son’s life.
Analysis of the Policy Language
The Legal Standards
The claimants both assert that the interpretation of David
Rings’ life insurance policy is governed by ERISA.
“When faced with a dispute over the proper beneficiary,
ERISA ‘supplies the rule of law’ for making that determination.’”
IBEW Pac. Coast Pension Fund v. Lee, 462 Fed.Appx. 546, 548 (6th
Cir. 2012), quoting Metro Life Ins. Co. v. Pressley, 82 F.3d 126,
129-30 (6th Cir. 1996).
The statutory language requires an ERISA
plan administrator to pay benefits “in accordance with the
documents and instruments governing the plan.”
The Court of Appeals has construed this section
as “establish[ing] a clear mandate that plan administrators
follow plan documents to determine the designated beneficiary.”
Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Marsh, 119 F.3d 415, 420 (6th Cir.
1997), citing Pressley, 82 F.3d at 130.
“ERISA directs that the
plan documents determine the beneficiaries, ..., and repeatedly
underscores the primacy of the written plan.”
Union Sec. Ins.
Co. v. Blakeley, 636 F.3d 275, 276 (6th Cir. 2011) (emphasis in
original) (citation omitted).
Consequently, if the plan document
provides “a workable means of identifying beneficiaries” the
Court “‘need look no further.’”
Id., quoting McMillan v. Parrot,
913 F.2d 310, 312 (6th Cir. 1990).
This is so whether the court
can find “a workable means of identifying beneficiaries in the
plan document ... in the general definition section or in the
plan as a whole.”
Id., quoting Mitzel v. Anthem Life Ins. Co.,
351 Fed. Appx. 74, 90 (6th Cir. 2009).
“Under federal common law, ‘ERISA plans, like contracts, are
to be construed as a whole.’”
Mitzel, quoting Alexander v.
Primerica Holdings, Inc., 967 F.2d 90, 93 (3d Cir. 1992). “[A]
plan’s provisions must be interpreted ‘according to their plain
meaning, in an ordinary and popular sense.’”
Caldwell v PNC
Financial Services Group, Inc., 835 F.Supp.2d 510, 522 (S.D. Ohio
2011), quoting Perez v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 150 F.3d 550, 556
(6th Cir. 1998).
In applying a plain meaning analysis, courts
are required to give effect to the unambiguous terms of an ERISA
Lake v. Metro Life Ins. Co., 73 F.3d 1372, 1379 (6th Cir.
“‘Courts must give effect to all words, phrases, and
clauses in interpreting a contract, avoiding interpretations that
would render any part of the contract surplusage....’”
CHS/Community Health Systems, Inc. v. Ledford, – F.Supp.3d –,
2016 WL 4506094, *4 (M.D. Tenn. Aug. 29, 2016), quoting
Tabernacle-The New Testament Church v. State Farm Fire & Cas.
Co., 616 Fed.Appx. 802, 808 (6th Cir. 2015).
The Meaning of the Policy
Against the backdrop of this legal framework, the dispute
here is very narrow.
must be construed.
There are really only two sentences which
The first is this:
To receive the death benefit, a beneficiary must be
living on the date of your death.
Under the undisputed facts laid out above, it is clear that
Teresa Rings met this qualification, and Judy Rings does not
Where she and the Estate part ways is on the
interpretation of this sentence:
In the event of the simultaneous deaths of you and the
beneficiary, the death benefit will be paid as if you
survived the beneficiary.
Judy Rings says two things: that the deaths here were
simultaneous because the order of death is impossible to
determine, and that once it is concluded that David Rings
survived Teresa, the death benefit cannot be paid to her (or her
The Estate, on the other hand, says that this language
is irrelevant because David and Teresa Rings did not die at the
same exact moment in time.
That, it says, is what “simultaneous”
means, and where that kind of “simultaneous” death cannot be
proved, any policy provision dealing with simultaneous deaths
simply does not come into play.
Unfortunately, the Policy does not define either the word
“simultaneous” or the phrase “simultaneous death.”
the Court must interpret the above provision “according to its
plain meaning, in an ordinary and popular sense.”
F.3d at 556.
Is that meaning and sense the precise definition of
the adjective “simultaneous,” as the Estate contends, or is there
an ordinary and popular sense of what is meant by the use of the
words “simultaneous death” in an insurance policy?
That is the
Judy Rings suggests that the phrase “simultaneous deaths”
does have a commonly understood and distinct meaning beyond the
meaning of the individual words “simultaneous” and “deaths” and
that the Court should give effect to that meaning.
her, the phrase is intended to cover the specific situation
presented here - deaths under circumstances where the order of
death is unknown or unknowable - and it operates just as the
policy specifies, deeming the policyholder to have survived the
The Court agrees that this reading of the provision is the
most plausible one and the one most consistent with the plain
meaning of the phrase “simultaneous death” as it is ordinarily
used in the insurance context.
It reaches this conclusion for
First, commentators have said that “simultaneous deaths” has
a commonly understood and specific meaning beyond the meaning of
the individual words “simultaneous” and “death.”
Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) defines the phrase
“simultaneous deaths” as:
The death of two or more persons in the same
mishap, under circumstances that make it impossible to
determine who died first. SEE UNIFORM SIMULTANEOUS
DEATH ACT; COMMON DISASTER; COMMORIENTES.
The related terms or phrases identified in this definition
are themselves defined in Black’s as follows:
Uniform Simultaneous Death Act. A 1940 model
statute specifying that if two or more people die
within 120 hours of each other, each is considered to
have predeceased the others. The Act simplifies estate
administration by preventing an inheritance from being
transferred more times than necessary. The Act was
revised in 1993 and has been adopted in some form by
almost every state. – Abbr. USDA. See COMMORIENTES.
Common Disaster. An event that causes two or more
persons (such as a testator and a devisee, or an
insured and a beneficiary) to die at very nearly the
same time, with no way of determining the order of
their deaths, when the ownership of property depends on
that order. See UNIFORM SIMULTANEOUS DEATH ACT;
Persons who die at the same
time, often of the same cause, such as spouses who die
in an accident. 2. Civil law. The rule establishing
presumptions of survivorship for purposes of succession
regarding such persons. See simultaneous death under
DEATH; UNIFORM SIMULTANEOUS DEATH ACT.
Second, this interpretation underlies The Uniform
Simultaneous Death Act and other state court simultaneous death
As one commentator has explained:
Statutes may be expressly applicable to the
distribution of the proceeds of insurance, and when
this is so, the statutes commonly provide that when the
chronological order of death cannot be determined, it
shall be assumed that the beneficiary had predeceased
the insured. This is true of the Uniform Simultaneous
Death Act of 1940, which provides that: “Where the
insured and the beneficiary in a policy of life or
accident insurance have died and there is no sufficient
evidence that they have died otherwise than
simultaneously the proceeds of the policy shall be
distributed as if the insured had survived the
beneficiary, [except if the policy is community
property of the insured and his spouse, and there is no
alternative beneficiary, or no alternative beneficiary
except the estate or personal representatives of the
insured, the proceeds shall be distributed as community
property under Section 4].” It is also provided that
the act “shall not apply in the case of wills, living
trusts, deeds, or contracts of insurance wherein
provision has been made for distribution of property
different from the provisions of this act.”
amended in 1993, the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act
provides that, subject to specified exceptions, “if (i)
it is not established by clear and convincing evidence
that one of two co-owners with right of survivorship
survived the other co-owner by 120 hours, one-half of
the property passes as if one had survived by 120 hours
and one-half as if the other had survived by 120 hours
and (ii) there are more than two co-owners and it is
not established by clear and convincing evidence that
at least one of them survived the others by 120 hours,
the property passes in the proportion that one bears to
the whole number of co-owners.”
These statutory rules do not preclude proof of actual
survivorship, for their purpose is merely to provide
that if there is no sufficient evidence that the
insured and beneficiary have died otherwise than
simultaneously, the proceeds shall be distributed as if
the insured had survived, and are to supplant former
presumptions of survivorship with effective, workable,
and equitable rules, but only if there is no sufficient
evidence to indicate that the insured and beneficiary
died otherwise than simultaneously.
When there is no proof that the beneficiary survived
the insured, the net effect of the 1940 version of the
Uniform Act is to pass the proceeds to the insured's
estate if no alternate beneficiary is designated, or to
the alternate beneficiary if such is designated. The
Act may also trigger various policy provisions
predicated on the beneficiary surviving, or
predeceasing, the insured.
(Footnotes omitted) 4 Couch on Insurance §61:44 (3rd ed.).
It makes sense to the Court that the concept of
“simultaneous deaths” serves a specific purpose - to provide an
“effective, workable and equitable” solution to the circumstance
where the order of death is unknown.
The language of the Policy
providing that, in the event of “simultaneous deaths” the death
benefit will be paid as if the insured survived the beneficiary,
is completely consistent with the language used in other settings
to address this scenario.
Further, this interpretation of “simultaneous deaths” gives
effect not only to the sentence in the Policy in which it appears
but makes sense when construed with the earlier sentence which
states that “To receive the death benefit, a beneficiary must be
living on the date of your death.”
Under the Estate’s
interpretation, this sentence would cover almost every
So, for example, when the deaths occur in
some indeterminate order but clearly on the same day, the first
sentence makes the beneficiary the survivor - which is this
So also, when the deaths are clearly not
simultaneous, and even if it is clear that the beneficiary died
first, as long as both deaths happened on the same day, the first
sentence would also control.
Further, it would still apply in a
situation where the deaths occurred at exactly the same instant which would necessarily mean they happened on the same day - but
then there would simply be an irreconcilable conflict between
that sentence and the “simultaneous death” sentence, with the
Court left without any means of deciding which one actually
dictates to whom the proceeds are paid.
It is more consistent
with the language used and the context of its use to conclude
that the policy’s intent, even if not precisely worded in this
way, is to make the proceeds payable only to living
beneficiaries, and to provide a rule for decision when it cannot
be determined if the beneficiary actually survived the insured that rule of decision being that she did not.
This is consistent
with the goal of providing a “workable, effective, and equitable”
solution, but the Estate’s interpretation is not.
For all of these reasons, the Court concludes that, because
it is undisputed that the order of death of David and Teresa
Rings is unknown and unknowable, under the terms of the Policy
Teresa Rings was not an eligible beneficiary at the time of her
Based on the current state of the record, the Court’s
assumption is that, under this circumstance, according to the
terms of the Policy, Judy Rings is entitled to collect the death
The parties’ briefing, however, suggests that other
issues may exist preventing immediate payment.
according to the Court’s docket, the Estate’s counterclaims
This is so despite the suggestion from
Minnesota Life’s filings, including its motion to deposit funds,
that the issues may be resolved.
Consequently, the Court will
schedule a status conference within 30 days to discuss any
For the reasons stated above, the motion for partial summary
judgment filed by Judy Rings (Doc. 45) is granted.
for partial summary judgment filed by the Estate of Teresa Rings
(Doc. 47) is denied.
The Clerk is directed to schedule a status
conference within 30 days.
/s/ Terence P. Kemp
United States Magistrate Judge
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