Washington Law Review




Plaintiff suffered a totally disabling back injury in an industrial accident. His insurance policy with the defendant company provided for benefits of $150 per month for thirty years for total disability due to injury. But if the disability were due to sickness, the benefits were to continue for only two years. The defendant had received extensive medical information confirming the accidental cause of the disablement. To avoid full payment, however, it attempted to pay under the limited two-year sickness provision, then stopped payments altogether, fabricated a story about a previously existing condition and demanded return of the payments it had made. Later, the company offered to permit the plaintiff to retain the past payments in return for his surrender of the policy. While the payments were withheld the plaintiff's family subsisted on macaroni, beans, and potatoes; their utilities were shut off; a daughter had to leave school; and they lost property in which they had invested. Plaintiff brought suit to obtain a declaration of the defendant's liability under the policy and to recover damages for emotional injuries caused by the defendant's conduct. The defendant stipulated its liability under the policy, and a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress was submitted to the jury. Following a jury award of $60,000 compensatory and $650,000 punitive damages, the trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $190,000. A primary issue on appeal was whether the action was one at contract rather than tort. Only a tort theory would allow plaintiff to recover damages for mental suffering or punitive damages. The appellate court affirmed. Held: Despite the contractual nature of the insurance policy, the action was one at tort. Fletcher v. Western National Life Insurance Co., 10 Cal. App. 3d 376, 89 Cal. Rptr. 78 (1970).

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