ERISA-Ninth Circuit Rules That Plaintiff Is Entitled To Accidental Dismemberment Benefits For His Accident

In Dowdy v. Metropolitan Insurance Company, No. 16-15824 (9th Cir. 2018), a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Panel”) reversed the district court’s judgment in favor of the defendant in an ERISA action challenging the denial of accidental dismemberment benefits under an employee welfare benefit plan subject to ERISA.

In this case, the plaintiff suffered a serious injury to his left leg as the result of an automobile accident, and his leg was eventually amputated below the knee. The defendant denied coverage because the plaintiff’s injury was complicated by his diabetes. The Panel held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding evidence outside the administrative record, and any error on this issue was harmless because the external evidence did not support the plaintiff’s claim.

Under the ERISA plan, the plaintiff was entitled to coverage if his car accident was the “direct and sole cause” of the loss, and if amputation “was a direct result of the accidental injury, independent of other causes.” The Panel held that, even under the more demanding “substantial contribution” standard used when the applicable plan language is conspicuous, the plaintiff was entitled to recovery because the record did not support a finding that the preexisting condition of diabetes substantially contributed to his loss. The panel remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.

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