Arizona court refuses to apply slayer statute

In Prudential v. Thomas, Judge Tuchi of the US Court for the District of Arizona considered the application of the Arizona slayer statute.  Ultimately, the court found a lack of evidence to deny life insurance benefits to the decedent's wife.

The decedent, Levon Thomas, had purchased a life insurance policy through his employer, Peabody Energy Company.  It was part of an ERISA plan, administered by Prudential Insurance Company of America. Thomas named his wife, Beverly, as the primary beneficiary.  He named his children as the contingent beneficiaries.

Thomas died under the following circumstances, as set out by the court:

In the early hours of March 14, 2015, a fire ignited in a residential trailer located at Space #287 in the Kayenta Mobile Home Park in Kayenta, Arizona. (Doc. 82, Beverly Thomas Separate Statement of Facts (“BT SSOF”) Ex. A.) The fire department and other emergency personnel arrived on the scene shortly thereafter in an effort to extinguish the blaze. (BT SSOF Ex. A.) Upon arrival, the first responders found Beverly Thomas who reported that her husband, LeVon Thomas (“Mr. Thomas”), was still inside the trailer. The firefighters extinguished the fire and proceeded inside where they found LeVon Thomas’s body

Three days later, the Navajo Department of Criminal Investigations performed an autopsy, which revealed that Mr. Thomas died from thermal injuries and smoke inhalation. His manner of death, however, was undetermined, and the Department closed the case because they found no evidence of foul play

Beverly filed a claim for the life insurance benefits. However, Prudential did not pay out the policy because of the circumstances surrounding Thomas’s death. Instead, Prudential filed an Interpleader action lawsuit for a court determination of to whom the benefits should be paid.

One of the claimants filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the court to find that Beverly was disqualified by the Arizona slayer statute. That statute provided:

[a] person who feloniously and intentionally kills the decedent forfeits all benefits under this chapter with respect to the decedent’s estate” and “[t]he felonious and intentional killing of the decedent ... [r]evokes any revocable ... appointment of property made by the decedent to the killer in a governing instrument.” A “conviction establishing criminal accountability for the felonious and intentional killing of the decedent conclusively establishes the convicted person as the decedent’s killer” under the statute. Even if a person has not been convicted, she may be still be held as the decedent’s killer under the statute if, “under the preponderance of evidence standard, the person would be found criminally accountable.

The court noted that the party seeking to apply the slayer statute relied primarily on the fact that Beverly had asserted her 5th Amendment right to against self-incrimination in response to interrogatories. In short, she refused to answer questions about her husband's death to avoid potentially implicating herself in a potential later criminal case. 

The federal court court noted that in civil cases, Arizona courts permit “the trier of fact ... to infer the truth of the charged misconduct.”   However, any such inference must be supported by "independent evidence of the fact about which the party refuses to testify.” The court noted:

the only evidence in the record of Beverly Thomas’s whereabouts and acts on the night in question can be found in the police reported offered by the moving parties. That report indicates only that firefighters “escorted [Beverly Thomas] away from the residence” and she informed them that her husband was still inside. These facts simply are not probative of whether Beverly Thomas “feloniously and intentionally killed” her husband.

Accordingly, the federal court awarded the policy benefits to Beverly.