Marcus Wilbers


According to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, the 16,694 alcohol-related fatalities in 2004 accounted for 39% of all traffic deaths. Although declining slightly from previous years, alcohol-related driving deaths are tragic, and their devastating effects on families are readily apparent. Although typically dubbed "drunk-driving accidents," courts have traditionally refused to describe these deaths as "accidental." This is particularly true when decedents or their beneficiaries attempt to collect accidental death benefits under the Employment Retirement Income Securities Act ("ERISA"). Focusing on the previously mentioned statistics, courts have often reflected the social intolerance for drunk driving in their decisions. Courts, however, have shown signs of bending on this nearly universal rule, particularly in light of the fact that alcohol-related fatalities occur in only 7% of all car wrecks and the rate of alcohol-related fatalities is roughly one for every 200 million vehicle miles traveled. Other commentators have also noted that of the approximately 1.4 million drivers arrested in 2002, only 8,474 drunk drivers died in an automobile crash, and that drunk drivers make 94 million diriving trips each year. Given this, some courts have concluded that, objectively, it is not highly likely for an impaired driver to die in an alcohol-related wreck, and those deaths are therefore acciednts. While not addressing this question directly, the Eighth Circuit in King v. Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Co. took a small step away from the universal denial of accidental death benefits and toward the contrary holding.

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