The petitioners, the beneficiaries of life insurance policies of the decedent, question the propriety of the Court of Special Appeal's reversal of the trial court's grant of summary judgment in petitioners' favor. The life insurance policies in question exclude coverage for death by suicide. Although the decedent unquestionably wanted to die, her attempts to kill herself failed, and she ultimately convinced a close friend to pull the trigger of a shotgun aimed at her head. The Circuit Court for Frederick County ruled that the insured's death was not a suicide and entered summary judgment in favor of petitioners. The respondent, Allstate Life Insurance Company (hereinafter "Allstate"), appealed and the Court of Special Appeals reversed, finding that Fister committed suicide because, as a matter of law, the term "suicide" must be interpreted from the perspective of the insured. Petitioners now challenge the decision of the Court of Special Appeals. We reverse the decision of the Court of Special Appeals and hold that summary judgment was properly granted. We conclude that the term "suicide" in Section 16-215 of the Insurance Article cannot be interpreted to include a death that occurs at the hands of another as the clear and unambiguous definition of the term "suicide" is to "intentionally take one's own life." Therefore, the decedent's death is not a suicide, and the beneficiaries are entitled to recover the proceeds of the life insurance policies.
The parties stipulated to the relevant facts in this case. Of particular import, it is uncontested that in September of 1996, Mary Gaye Fister wished to die. During the months prior to her death, Fister left several messages with friends and family,
Fister attempted, on several occasions, to find someone to kill her. She asked friends and a former boyfriend to assist her in either performing the task or finding someone who would. One of her closest friends, Lawrence Goldman, after repeatedly refusing to assist Fister, ultimately agreed to accompany her on September 10, 1996, when she resolved to kill herself. Fister and Goldman drove to a site on Baldwin Road in Monrovia, Maryland, with a 12 gauge shotgun that Fister had purchased a few days earlier. Fister told Goldman that her death could not appear to be a suicide because her life insurance policies excluded coverage in the event that the insured, Fister, commits "suicide." Therefore, intending to make it appear as though she was murdered, she asked Goldman to hold the shotgun to her head while she pulled the trigger. Fister had tied a string to the shotgun trigger housing so that she could pull the trigger while Goldman held and aimed the shotgun. Ms. Fister attempted to pull the string several times, but the shotgun did not discharge. According to Goldman, "[s]he kept pulling and pulling and pulling and then she started yelling at me saying, `Let's do it! Let's do it! Let's do it!' She said, `Larry, for the first time in your life, do something right, help me! Help me!' And before I knew it, I had pulled the trigger." After pulling the trigger, Goldman disposed of the gun and left the scene. Fister's body was discovered by a police officer several hours later. Goldman was charged with first degree murder, and pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter, receiving an agreed upon sentence of five years imprisonment.
Between November 1994 and May 1995, Allstate issued five separate life insurance policies, bearing an aggregate death benefit of $1,650,000, on the life of Mary Gaye Fister. Three of those life insurance policies are the subject of this appeal:
Each of the Allstate policies contained the following exclusion to insurance coverage:
1) We will only pay a refund of the payments made; and
2) The contract will stop.
Notably, Fister's death is within the two year period from the date of issuance of each of the policies.
Petitioners filed a complaint against Allstate in the Circuit Court for Frederick County seeking to recover the death benefits under the life insurance policies covering Mary Gaye Fister.
Allstate appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, arguing that Fister's death was a suicide because courts must view the term of contention, even though unambiguous,
The Court of Special Appeals reversed the Circuit Court's judgment and remanded the case with directions to enter judgment
Petitioners sought, and this Court granted, a writ of certiorari to consider whether the definition of suicide, used both in statute and in contract, encompasses circumstances where the death of one, while clearly intended and desired, actually occurs at the hands of another. Because we conclude that the definition of "suicide" unambiguously entails the intentional taking of one's own life, we hold that, as a matter of law, Fister's death was not a suicide and petitioners are entitled to recover the benefits from the insurance policies.
II. Standard of Review
Our review of a grant of summary judgment involves the determination of whether a dispute of material fact exists, Mayor and City Council of Baltimore v. Ross, 365 Md. 351, 359, 779 A.2d 380, 385 (2001); Williams v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, 359 Md. 101, 113, 753 A.2d 41, 47 (2000); Gross v. Sussex, Inc., 332 Md. 247, 255, 630 A.2d 1156, 1160 (1993), and whether the trial court's ruling was legally correct. See Williams, 359 Md. at 113-14, 753 A.2d at 47-48 (quoting Goodwich v. Sinai Hosp. of Baltimore, Inc., 343 Md. 185, 204, 680 A.2d 1067, 1076 (1996)). Because the facts are undisputed, we are left to determine whether the trial court correctly interpreted and applied the relevant law to the uncontested facts. As with all questions of law, we review this matter de novo. See Register of Wills for Baltimore County v. Arrowsmith, 365 Md. 237, 249, 778 A.2d 364, 371 (2001).
As with any contract, our interpretation of an insurance policy, its scope, and its limitations, involves discerning the terms of the contract itself. See Cole v. State Farm Mutual Ins. Co., 359 Md. 298, 305, 753 A.2d 533, 537 (2000); Kendall v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 348 Md. 157, 165, 702 A.2d 767, 771 (1997); Chantel Assoc. v. Mount Vernon Fire Ins. Co., 338 Md. 131, 142, 656 A.2d 779, 784 (1995). Generally, when interpreting a contract's terms, our primary consideration is the "customary, ordinary, and accepted meaning" of the language used. See Cole, 359 Md. at 305, 753 A.2d at 537 (quoting Lloyd E. Mitchell, Inc. v. Maryland Casualty Co., 324 Md. 44, 56, 595 A.2d 469, 475 (1991)).
When the terms of the contract are derived from explicit statutory guidelines, however, the paramount consideration is interpreting the pertinent statutory provision. While the insurance policy contractually binds the parties in this case, the authority for implementing and utilizing the specific policy terms in question emanates from our State Legislature, and it is to their design to which we defer. See Dutta v. State Farm Ins. Co., 363 Md. 540, 550-51, 769 A.2d 948, 954 (2001) (considering first, the extent to which PIP coverage was mandated by the State Legislature under Maryland Code, Title 19, subtitle 5 of the Insurance Article (1995, 1997 Repl.
The Maryland Legislature enacted a provision which forbids insurance companies from excluding policy coverage for deaths caused in a specified manner except under five specific circumstances, of which suicide is one. The provision, now codified at Section 16-215 of the Insurance Article,
* * *
Maryland Code, § 16-215 of the Insurance Article (1996, 1997 Repl.Vol.). To identify and effectuate the underlying legislative intent, the principal goal of statutory interpretation, we look first to the ordinary and plain meaning of the language of the statute. See Derry v. State, 358 Md. 325, 335, 748 A.2d 478, 483 (2000) (citing Robinson v. State, 353 Md. 683, 694, 728 A.2d 698, 703 (1999)). When the words are clear and unambiguous, according to their commonly understood meaning, our inquiry ordinarily ends. See Mid-Atlantic Power Supply Ass'n. v. Pub. Serv. Comm'n of Maryland, 361 Md. 196, 203-04, 760 A.2d 1087, 1091 (2000)(citing Mayor & City Council of Baltimore v. Chase, 360 Md. 121, 128, 756 A.2d 987, 991 (2000) and Chesapeake and Potomac Tel. Co. of Maryland v. Dir. of Fin. for Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 343 Md. 567, 578, 683 A.2d 512, 517-18 (1996)).
The term of contention in the case sub judice is the word "suicide," which is left undefined by Section 16-215, and by the entire Insurance Article. In fact, despite use of the word in several different contexts throughout the Maryland Code,
We believe that the plain and ordinary meaning of the word, and the definition recently set forth by the Legislature, are synonymous and unequivocally unambiguous. Suicide is the intentional taking of one's own life, i.e. by his or her own hands. In discussing similar suicide exclusion clauses, we have historically used terminology such as "taking one's own life," Ins. Co. of North America v. Aufenkamp, 291 Md. 495, 504, 435 A.2d 774, 779 (1981), and "death ... by his own hand or act," Knickerbocker Life Ins. Co. v. Peters, 42 Md. 414, 421 (1875), to describe suicide. One's desire to die, but failure to accomplish the act, does not mean that another person's successful completion of the act is still considered suicide. Suicide requires more than simple thought, and more than elaborate planning; it requires conduct—an act which consummates the intent—as it is generally the actor's ultimate conduct to which we look when determining responsibility.
Fister did not commit suicide because she did not take her own life; rather, another person, exercising his own free will, was ultimately responsible for her death. The operation of this independent free will acts as an intervening cause of Fister's death. Despite her pronounced and unquestionable desire to die, and her uncontested, disreputable, and even fraudulent motives in seeking to make her death appear as a murder for purposes of assuring that her beneficiaries receive insurance policy proceeds, Fister's death was undeniably the result of a homicide. A conscious, thinking human being, who was in no immediate danger or peril, made a choice to pull the trigger. As a result of that independent choice, Fister died.
Along those lines, the Court of Special Appeals mentioned an unsubstantiated psychological theory described as "suicide by cop" in footnote 5 of its opinion. According to this theory, when a
This Court does not stand alone in declaring the meaning of "suicide" unambiguous; in fact, the term "suicide" was declared to be unambiguous by the Court of Special Appeals, and was stipulated as such by both parties in this case. The question then becomes, how could the term suicide, under its ordinary and commonly understood definition, legitimately be interpreted to include a not-so-ordinary and not-so-common action, i.e. the pulling of the trigger by someone other than the alleged "suicide" victim. The answer is found in the Court of Special Appeals's erroneous application of the principles of contract (insurance policy) interpretation that we set forth in Cole v. State Farm Mutual Ins. Co., 359 Md. at 305, 753 A.2d at 537 (2000).
Cole, supra, involved this Court's attempt to discern whether the event-the shooting and killing of Ms. Cole while seated in her parked van-constituted an "accident" for purposes of recovering insurance proceeds under her automobile policy. First, we note that, contrary to the case before us today, our decision in Cole was not guided or constrained by any statutory construct; rather, the Cole decision was based solely on contract interpretation. Second, and again, contrary to the present case, the premise for the principles of interpretation established in the Cole decision was the ambiguity surrounding the word "accident." Both parties in Cole agreed on the textual definition of "accident," i.e. that under Maryland law, "accident" is defined as "a happening; an event that takes place without one's foresight or expectation; an event which proceeds from an unknown cause, or is an unusual effect from a known cause, and therefore not expected." 359 Md. at 307, 753 A.2d at 538 (quoting Harleysville Mut. Cas. Co. v. Harris & Brooks, Inc., 248 Md. 148, 151, 235 A.2d 556, 557 (1967) (citations omitted)). The parties disagreed, however, on through whose eyes one should analyze whether the event took place "without foresight or expectation." See id. State Farm argued that the shooting of Ms. Cole was an intentional, foreseen, and anticipated act on the part of the killer; not an
359 Md. at 305-06, 753 A.2d at 537 (internal citations omitted).
Thus, only when a term is reasonably susceptible to more than one meaning, do we consider extrinsic evidence. See Bushey v. Northern Assurance Co. of America, 362 Md. 626, 632, 766 A.2d 598, 601 (2001)(stating that, "[w]here terms are ambiguous, extrinsic and parole evidence may be considered to ascertain the intention of the parties")(emphasis added). Suicide is not such a term. Nor is its definition—the intentionally taking of one's own life—reasonably susceptible to more than one meaning. Another person's involvement in causing the death of another cannot reasonably be construed as suicide. In this case, Goldman held a shotgun to Fister's head and ultimately pulled the trigger, causing Fister's death. This is homicide, not suicide. Therefore, we enforce the insurance policy by faithfully and strictly adhering to its unambiguous terms, the very same (unambiguous) terms authorized by the State Legislature. See Dutta, 363 Md. at 556, 769 A.2d at 957 (explaining that "if no ambiguity in the terms of the insurance contract exist, a court has no alternative but to enforce those terms")(citing Kendall, 348 Md. at 171, 702 A.2d at 773).
Although the Court of Special Appeals agreed that the term "suicide" was unambiguous, it sought to include actions in the definition which did not fall within the unambiguous scope of the term. The Court of Special Appeals stated, "[w]e believe that the term `suicide' encompasses the instance in which an individual intends to end his or her own life and takes all of the necessary steps toward ending his or her life, with the exception of the final act," because "[t]he accepted definition of suicide does not mandate that the decedent carry out the final act in order for his or her death to be considered a suicide." 136 Md.App. at 379, 765 A.2d at 1030. The Court further concluded that, "the only logical way to determine whether a death was a suicide, i.e. occurred pursuant to the insured's own free volition and intent, is from the perspective of the insured." Id. at 381, 765 A.2d at 1031.
We disagree. The accepted definition of suicide mandates that the decedent take his or her own life. The Court of Special Appeals essentially concedes that the commonly understood meaning of the term "suicide" should be applied, yet it simultaneously declares that an element of this "unambiguous term" should be ignored, namely that the "final act" is not necessary to constitute a "suicide." By removing, from the definition of "suicide," the act itself, i.e. the physical taking of one's own life, the court purports to consider only the "free volition and intent" of the deceased, which effectively alters the
Allstate also contends that the slayer's rule precludes the petitioners from recovering the death benefits. Under the slayer's rule, embodied in Maryland common law, a beneficiary of a life insurance policy may not recover under the policy if she is responsible for bringing about the death of the insured. See Diep v. Rivas, 357 Md. 668, 676, 745 A.2d 1098, 1102 (2000)(quoting Schifanelli v. Wallace, 271 Md. 177, 188, 315 A.2d 513, 519 (1974)); Ford v. Ford, 307 Md. 105, 107-12, 512 A.2d 389, 390-93 (1986). The rule is designed to prevent one from profiting by his or her crime. Diep, 357 Md. at 677, 745 A.2d at 1102. Allstate argues that by allowing Fister's estate to recover the death benefits, the slayer, i.e. Fister, would benefit from the commission of her crime. If a wife who solicits the murder of her husband is prohibited from collecting the insurance proceeds, Allstate argues, then one who solicits her own death should be prohibited from collecting the proceeds. This argument is flawed and requires an unjustifiable extension of the slayer's rule. As mentioned, the rule is intended to preclude a "slayer" from benefitting from the killing of another. Neither of the petitioners, i.e. the decedent's mother, independently, and the decedent's daughter, as personal representative of the estate, was responsible for the death of Fister,
Neither through statutory construct, nor through contract interpretation, can we justify broadening the plain and ordinary definition of the word "suicide." Just as we seek to avoid farfetched interpretations of statutes, see e.g. Frost v. State, 336 Md. 125, 137, 647 A.2d 106, 112 (1994), so do we wish to avoid interpreting contract language between two parties in a manner that is void of a commonsensical perspective. This Court will "neither add nor delete words to a clear and unambiguous statute to give it a meaning not reflected by the words the Legislature used;" nor will we "engage in forced or subtle interpretation in an attempt to extend or limit the statute's meaning." Taylor v. NationsBank, N.A., 365 Md. 166, 181, 776 A.2d 645, 654 (2001). We are being asked to re-write the statute and contract so as not to offend notions of fair play, or so as to achieve that which is, at least from the perspective of the insurer, the fair result. We refuse. It is the province of the State Legislature, not the courts, to expand the scope of insurance policy exclusions under Section 16-215.
JUDGMENT OF THE COURT OF SPECIAL APPEALS REVERSED. CASE REMANDED TO THAT COURT WITH INSTRUCTIONS TO AFFIRM THE JUDGMENT OF THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR FREDERICK COUNTY. COSTS IN THIS COURT AND IN THE COURT OF SPECIAL APPEALS TO BE PAID BY RESPONDENT.
Judge ELDRIDGE, concurring:
I concur in the judgment but not in the Court's reasoning. I would agree that the word "suicide," as applied in most circumstances, is not ambiguous. Nevertheless, in the context of the present case, the term does seem to be ambiguous.
I would not in this case decide whether the word "suicide" in § 16-215 of the Insurance Article covers the factual situation here presented. The life insurance policies issued by Allstate do not define the term "suicide" as used in the exclusions to coverage. It is a settled principle that "ambiguity in the language" of an insurance policy "should be construed against the party preparing it," Truck Ins. Exch. v. Marks Rentals, 288 Md. 428, 435, 418 A.2d 1187, 1191 (1980). Since, in the context of this case, the term "suicide" in the insurance policies is ambiguous, and since
Code, Art. 27 § 416(b).
It is a crime under this statute to "assist" another in killing himself or herself, whether by coercion, participation, or providing the physical means to do so. Allstate asserts that the only reason Goldman could not have been charged or convicted of assisted suicide is because the Act was enacted years after Fister's death. We disagree; notwithstanding that the Act was not in effect at the time of Fister's death, Goldman could not have been charged or convicted under the Act because he did not assist another under the terms of the Act. A single deviation in the fact pattern makes this point clear: Had Goldman only held the shotgun while Fister pulled the trigger, this could have been construed as participation "in a physical act by which another person commits or attempts to commit suicide." Art. 27 § 416(b)(3). By pulling the trigger, however, Goldman has no longer "assisted" a person in killing herself. Rather, he has killed her by his own hands; and this, the law declares, is homicide.