Ohio State and Federal Courts Reject Class Actions Alleging That Life Insurers Have an Affirmative Duty to Undertake Death Matches

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Originally published in Life Insurance Law Committee Newsletter, Summer 2012.

In three putative class actions brought by private plaintiffs seeking to require life insurers to undertake death matches, Ohio state and federal trial courts have held that the plaintiffs lack standing to pursue such claims, with the state court also holding that the claims fail on the merits because they conflict with the policies’ plain language. These cases, Andrews v. Nationwide, Stevenson v. Western & Southern,3 and Range v. The Cincinnati Life Insurance Company, made up a series of putative class actions raising issues involving life insurers and the Social Security Death Master File (SSDMF) that were brought following significant regulatory activity relating to unclaimed property issues in the life insurance industry. The complaints had alleged that the defendant insurers had an affirmative duty to search the SSDMF at least annually for possible deaths of insureds under life insurance policies and to pay death benefits without requiring any further notice of death.

In the complaints, the plaintiffs alleged that although they were alive, the “actuarial probability” of their mortality was greater than 70%.5 They alleged that the insurer’s duty of good faith and fair dealing required it to check the SSDMF, at least on an annual basis, to see whether any insureds at or above the asserted 70% death probability threshold have died, and to pay insurance proceeds “even in the absence of a submission of proof of death.” The plaintiffs proposed to represent a putative class of other individuals whose probability of death was greater than 70%. They sought an injunction requiring defendants to search for deaths at least annually, a declaratory judgment to the same effect and a further declaratory judgment that, as to deceased class members, defendants must “pay the proceeds of the insurance contract, without first requiring further notice of death, together with that rate of interest that the Court may determine . . . .” They also asserted a breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing and a claim for unjust enrichment.

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