How Far Will Insurers Go To Deny Your Benefits?

In a previous post, we discussed the great lengths insurers will go to offset your benefits.  Insurance companies are financially motivated to reduce and/or deny your disability benefits, and you may be surprised by how far insurers will go to find a reason to deny benefits.

In the case of Dowdy v. MetLife,[1] Tommy Dowdy suffered serious injuries, including a “semi-amputated left ankle,” as the result of a car accident.  After several months, Mr. Dowdy’s injury failed to improve, and he ultimately his leg was amputated below knee.  Mr. Dowdy had disability coverage under a MetLife plan his wife had purchased through her employer, which provided insurance for any loss that was a “direct result of an accidental injury.”  The plan, governed under ERISA, also had several exclusions, including an illness or infirmity exclusion, which stated that MetLife would not issue benefits “for any loss caused or contributed to by … physical … illness or infirmity, or the diagnosis or treatment of such illness or infirmity.”

The Dowdys filed a claim with MetLife but just prior to the amputation, MetLife informed the Dowdys that it intended to deny the claim because his injury was not a “severance” under the terms of the policy.  Despite being informed by Ms. Dowdy that the amputation would be performed within the next week, MetLife issued a letter denying coverage. After the amputation, Mr. Dowdy’s doctor, Dr. Coufal, wrote a letter to MetLife, explaining that Mr. Dowdy’s wound and the fracture to his left leg were slow to heal, and his wound issues were complicated by his diabetes.  As a result, he developed a deep infection and underwent elective left below-the-knee amputation for treatment. At this point, MetLife sent a second denial letter, citing the illness or infirmity exclusion, quoted above.  The letter stated that Mr. Dowdy’s “amputation was contributed [to] and complicated by diabetes per Dr. Coufal,” and was therefore excluded from coverage under the plan’s terms.

When the Dowdy’s filed for administrative appeal, MetLife upheld its denial, and also concluded that the accident was not the “direct and sole cause” of the amputation, as was required under the policy. The Dowdy’s then sought review in federal court.  Initially, the district court found that diabetes caused or contributed to the need for amputation, and affirmed the denial of benefits.  However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision and found that Mr. Dowdy was entitled to benefits.

In their decision, the Court of Appeals addressed MetLife’s denial on the grounds that the accident was not the “direct and sole cause” of the amputation.  The Court found that while diabetes was a factor in the injury, it did not substantially contribute to Mr. Dowdy’s amputation. The Court then addressed MetLife’s denial under the illness or infirmity exclusion, and found that Mr. Dowdy’s injury was not excluded from coverage.  The Court noted that “the record with respect to the role of diabetes in Mr. Dowdy’s recovery [was] notably thin.”  Instead, it was the car accident that resulted in a severe injury, which led to Mr. Dowdy’s eventual leg amputation.  The Court held that exclusions are to be construed narrowly, and because Mr. Dowdy’s diabetes did not substantially contribute to his amputation, this exclusion did not bar coverage.

While Mr. Dowdy was ultimately able to receive the benefits that he was entitled, this case shows how far insurance companies are willing to go to deny your disability benefits.  This case also highlights the importance of communicating with your treating physician, and ensuring that he or she understands the terms of your policy before contacting the insurance company.  Any seemingly innocent statement, like Dr. Coufal opining that Mr. Dowdy’s injury was complicated by his diabetes, can give the insurance company enough ammunition to deny you coverage.

[1] Dowdy v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, 890 F.3d 802 (9th Cir. 2018).

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