Court grants summary judgment in favor of widow

I keep coming across slayer statute cases. They make for interesting scenarios. Garden State Life Insurance v. Estate of Raine, et al, certainly fits that description.

This is a case out of the Federal Southern District of Mississippi. At the time of his death, decedent James Raine was married to Emma Raine and had designated her as the sole beneficiary of the life insurance policy at issue.

According to the opinion by Judge Keith Starrett, James Raine died of gunshot wounds in 2011, while in his home in Poplarville, Mississippi. He was shot multiple times in the forehead, chin, head and neck.

In 2013, James’ family began estate proceedings and contended Emma caused his death. The insurance company responded by filing the interpleader. The Mississippi slayer statute provides, in pertinent part:

If any person willfully cause or procure the death of another in any way, he shall not inherit the property, real or personal, of such other; but the same shall descend as if the person so causing or procuring the death had predeceased the person whose death he perpetrated.

Emma filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the Estate had no evidence that she actually caused James’ death. The Court noted:

In order to terminate Emma Raine’s interest in the proceeds, the Estate bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that Emma Raine willfully caused or procured the death of James R. Raine. Emma Raine has moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the Estate of James R. Raine cannot prove an essential element of its claim and as a matter of law it is entitled to summary judgment, finding her the rightful beneficiary under the Policy. In particular, Emma Raine claims that the Estate cannot establish that she willfully caused or brought about the death of James R. Raine.

 

Because the Estate bears the burden of proof at trial to show that Emma Raine willfully caused or procured the death of James R. Raine, Emma Raine is not required to “produce evidence negating the existence of a genuine issue of fact, but only to “point out the absence of evidence supporting the nonmoving party’s case.” She has satisfied that burden. Emma Raine contends that there has simply been no evidence adduced in discovery that the Estate can use to support its position—no witnesses named, no expert, no copy or description of any document, and there has been no written discovery propounded, no subpoenas issued, and no depositions taken.

From the case summary, it appears that Emma had quite a history:

(1) James R. Raine was shot and killed at his home on October 21, 2011; (2) Emma’s second husband, Ernest J. Smith, Jr. was shot and killed at his home; and (3) Emma Raine was subsequently convicted of the murder of her husband number two, Ernest J. Smith, Jr., but not before she collected a portion of $800,000 life insurance proceeds from Primerica

The decision also notes that Emma also had convictions for bankruptcy fraud and tax fraud. However, the Court found that such history did not provide evidence that Emma killed James. The Court summarized such evidence from the Estate as:

The only evidence the Estate submitted in response to the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment is an affidavit from Angela Fowler, James R. Raine’s sister. In her affidavit, Ms. Fowler avers that she is familiar with Emma Raine as her sister-in-law and that Ms. Fowler had the opportunity to observe their relationship and engage in conversations with each of them. See id. Ms. Fowler also states that Emma Raine was bossy and tried to isolate James R. Raine from his family. See id. She states that Emma Raine was not a loving wife and recounts other observations that can best be summarized as Emma Raine acting indifferently when “her little dog was licking James [sic] blood off the floor” and making inappropriate comments to James’ mother the day after his death. Id.

 

Ms. Fowler further states that she knows Emma Raine owned a gun and that James had taught them both how to shoot. Finally, Ms. Fowler swears that she visited the house where James was killed the day after the shooting and “did not see anything that looked like the house had been broken into;” nothing was missing; valuables were there; there were no signs of burglary; and it “appeared that he was killed in his sleep on the bed and there was no sign of a struggle.”

The Court did not find that amounted to much in support of a slayer statute claim:

Finally, the Estate claims that the only witnesses likely to have discoverable information about the circumstances surrounding James R. Raine’s death are his family and law enforcement officials, but because the case is open and still under investigation, such information is not discoverable. The Estate submitted no other affidavits from family or law enforcement. There is nothing in the record showing that the investigation is still ongoing, nor is there any evidence in the record that any arrests have been made in the almost seven years since the homicide. If there are individuals who are capable of testifying from their own personal knowledge, as the Estate claims on Page 4 of its memorandum, this was the time to present that testimony in the form of affidavits even if discovery from their own witnesses was deemed unnecessary.

The Court obviously felt that if charges were forthcoming, the Estate would have explained why they had not been brought in the seven years since James’ murder.

J. Michael YoungComment