Unum: Celebrating More than a Century of Claim Denials

Looking back at old disability insurance cases can be just as fascinating as reading old newspapers. Unum, the largest disability insurer in the U.S., is the product of numerous mergers. Unum’s corporate history (available on its website) proudly traces its lineage, which includes the Masonic Protective Association, later acquired by Paul Revere, which was subsequently acquired by Unum. Under a heading of “The company with a heart,” Unum notes that “The Masonic Protective Association, which later became Paul Revere, traded on its reputation of paying claims quickly and without fuss to become a powerhouse in providing accident insurance to members of the Brotherhood.”

For an example of Unum’s predecessor “paying claims quickly and without fuss,” examine the 1901 case of Scales v. Masonic Protective Association, 48 A. 1084 (N.H. 1901). The insured’s disability policy required that “disability, to constitute a claim for sickness, shall require absolute, necessary, continuous confinement to the house.” The insured became sick and incapacitated for 67 days. He spent the first five days entirely inside his house. As his physician had suggested fresh air to assist his recovery, he spent a portion of each subsequent day in his yard, either sitting in a chair or lying in a hammock.

Though the insurer admitted that the insured had been sick, it denied the insured’s claim for disability benefits on the grounds that the insured was not “confined to the house” under the terms of the policy. The Supreme Court of New Hampshire held that it was unreasonable to suppose that the insured could not sit in his yard for the purpose of recovery. It noted that the insurer’s interpretation of the policy would lead to the inference “that the [insurer] intended to deceive the insured.”

In what seems woefully naïve in light of what we know today regarding Unum’s claims practices, the court went on to state: “It cannot be presumed that an association of the character of the defendant association would be capable of such intent.” The court then applied a strict interpretation of the policy language and, finding “to a house” different in meaning from “in a house,” held that the insured had been confined to his house within the terms of the policy, and awarded him benefits.

What can we learn from a 110 year old case? Some things never change. Though the victorious attorney who represented the insured against Masonic Protective Association is long gone, today’s insureds should still consult an experienced disability insurance lawyer when considering filing a claim.