A Newark federal judge has dismissed a suit seeking to recover $3.5 million from two life insurance policies in the name of a Time Warner attorney who committed suicide.
Christine Arena was an assistant general counsel at Time Warner when she died at age 41 in April 2015. She graduated from Fordham Law School in 1999 and spent six years at Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York before joining Time Warner. Following Arena’s death, her husband, Gianfranco Arena, sought to collect on two life insurance policies she took out in 2014, one for $1 million and the other for $2.5 million.
The insurance company refused to pay, citing policy language barring claims in case of suicide. The husband then filed a lawsuit, represented by lawyers from Cravath, claiming the policy restriction on suicides should not apply because Christine Arena was induced to commit suicide by medications prescribed by a psychiatrist.
U.S. District Chief Judge Jose Linares of the District of New Jersey noted that both sides agree that suicide exclusions in the life insurance policies are unambiguous, and that Arena’s act of hanging herself caused her death. But Arena’s husband raised a question of fact as to whether his wife possessed the intent to commit suicide. He presented a psychiatrist’s expert testimony that Arena’s medically induced state deprived her of the ability to form the intent to take her own life.
However, Linares said the suicide exclusions apply even if Arena was induced by her antidepressant and anti-anxiety drugs to commit suicide, since the policy said her beneficiaries could not recover if she took her own life, “whether sane or insane.”
“The court acknowledges that the facts of this case are tragic and sympathizes with the members of Mrs. Arena’s family for their loss. Nevertheless, the court must find that there is no genuine issue of material fact that would allow a reasonable juror to return a verdict for plaintiff,” Linares said.
Lawyers for Arena’s husband say they will appeal.
Arena was diagnosed with anxiety and depression and was prescribed Clonazepam, an anti-anxiety drug, and two antidepressants, Sertraline and Trazodone, on April 2, 2015. Her psychiatrist increased Arena’s daily dosages of those drugs several times in the following weeks.
Arena hanged herself in the home she shared with her husband and four children on April 21, 2015, and was hospitalized and placed on life support. Her husband decided to remove her from life support on eight days later, and she died the following day.
Arena was coping with financial concerns in the period before her death, according to court documents, but the parties disagreed as to what role that played in her anxiety and depression. On March 18, 2015, the couple closed on a home in Montclair for $1.3 million. The following day, a deal to sell the couple’s existing home fell through.
In seeking to claim the insurance policy proceeds, lawyers for Arena’s husband cited a 1968 case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Johnson v. Metro Life Insurance, which stated that a suicide exclusion may not apply in situations where a claimant was not attempting to take his own life. In Johnson, a merchant marine who learned his wife was divorcing him, spread fuel oil around his room and his clothes and set the room, and himself, on fire. In that case, the Third Circuit said a deranged person who sets himself on fire might believe he is immortal or have no comprehension of what he is doing. Any such showing, the Johnson court said, would negate a finding of intentional self-destruction.
But no such circumstance is present in the Arena case, Linares said. Arena’s husband has not offered any evidence to support a conclusion that she was unaware of the fatal consequences of her acts, he said. The only factual support the plaintiff offers is the opinion of an expert, Joseph Glenmullen, an admitted critic of the overprescription of psychiatric medications for mild conditions without notice to patients about side effects.
Attorneys for defendant Riversource Life Insurance criticized Glenmullen as “a professional witness whose primary source of income is litigation.” Linares granted summary judgment to Riversource without deciding its motion to exclude Glenmullen’s testimony.
Kevin Orsini and Rory Leraris of Cravath represented Gianfranco Arena.
Cravath said in a statement, “We are disappointed with the court’s ruling. Mrs. Arena was a loving mother, wife, friend and colleague who was under the influence of powerful medications at the time of her death. She is deeply missed by all. We expect to appeal this ruling and continue to believe that the evidence shows that Mrs. Arena could not have intended to end her life and we are confident that a jury would agree.”
Riversource was represented by Michael Nesse of Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani in New York and Sara Anderson Frey of that firm’s Philadelphia office. They did not respond to requests for comment.