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Litigation News

Litigation News | 2023

“Suicide by Cop” Precludes Death Benefits

Andrea L. McDonald


  • An appellate court ruled that the term "suicide" in life insurance policies can encompass "suicide by cop" or intentional provocation of fatal force by law enforcement.
  • The court emphasized that intent, not the method used, is the crucial factor in determining whether an act qualifies as suicide.
  • Attorneys are advised to focus on developing facts relevant to intent in similar cases.
“Suicide by Cop” Precludes Death Benefits
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The ever-evolving term “suicide” hinges on intent, not method. In a case of first impression, an appellate court held that the term “suicide” in life insurance policies can encompass the intentional provocation of fatal force by law enforcement, colloquially referred to as “suicide by cop.” ABA Litigation Section leaders believe the court arrived at the correct decision and encourage attorneys on both sides of similar issues to focus on developing facts relevant to intent.

An Intentionally Fatal Encounter

In North American Company for Life & Health Insurance v. Caldwell, an insurer sought declaratory judgment that the “suicide” exclusion in its life insurance policies applied to suicide by cop. According to the complaint, Justin Caldwell, distraught by the revelation that his wife wanted a divorce, stated that he “wanted to die by law enforcement.” As Caldwell retreated to the garage to retrieve his firearms, his wife called 911, reporting that he was suicidal and armed.

Upon arrival at the residence, the SWAT team received the warning that Caldwell “intended to start shooting until law enforcement shot him.” The officers attempted to de-escalate the situation, but Caldwell refused to surrender his weapons. Undeterred by rubber bullets, he ran toward his vehicle and grabbed his rifle. When he lifted the weapon, the SWAT team fired, killing him.

After Caldwell’s beneficiaries sought to collect the $1 million death benefits under his insurance policies, the insurer filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, seeking a ruling that the beneficiaries were not entitled to recovery under the suicide exclusion. The beneficiaries answered and moved for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). For purposes of the motion, the parties essentially agreed that Mr. Caldwell “provoked law enforcement into fatally shooting him.” Accordingly, the only issue before the court was a definitional one—whether the term “suicide” extended to death at the hand of a third party. The district court found for the beneficiaries, noting that “the term ‘suicide’ encompasses the act of killing oneself—not the killing of a person by another.”

Method Does Not Matter

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed. Rather than adopting the narrow definition employed by the district court, the Eleventh Circuit focused on proximate cause and intent. “A death is a suicide when a person intentionally causes his own death. [] The specific method is irrelevant.” Citing numerous dictionaries, scientific journals, and non-precedential opinions, the court observed that “no definition restricts the meaning to only a limited set of qualifying acts that involve no third parties.”

The court rejected the beneficiaries’ argument that suicide cannot be accomplished indirectly. “After all, if a man threw himself before a train, nobody would argue that the conductor had committed homicide.” The court made clear that it was not creating a bright-line rule. “We do not decide that the ordinary meaning of ‘suicide’ covers all imaginable instances of suicide-by-cop, but ‘suicide’ certainly covers [Caldwell’s] specific behavior in pointing his gun at police officers to provoke them into shooting and killing him as part of his plan to end his own life.”

Section leaders agree with the holding. “The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion is well-reasoned, noting that it is the intent of the insured that determines the question, not the actual means of death,” comments D. Larry Kristinik, Columbia, SC, vice-chair of the Litigation Section. Kristinik notes, however, that this decision is unlikely to prevent future claims for life insurance proceeds in similar circumstances. “Questions of intent can become very murky and almost always present a fact issue for the jury.”

It’s All About the Facts

The absence of a factual dispute ultimately determined the issue. “The devil is in the details of what Mr. Caldwell actually intended as a matter of fact by holing up in his garage with firearms, knowing the police were outside,” explains John C. Bonnie, Atlanta, GA, cochair of the Section’s Insurance Coverage Litigation Committee. “According to the beneficiaries’ answer, Mr. Caldwell never said he wanted to commit suicide or that he wanted to die from ‘suicide by cop.’ He was just sitting and cleaning his guns and getting his belongings together (like photo albums) to leave the house, and he had no other ‘intentions’ that day despite the concerns of his family. But the admission that Mr. Caldwell intended to kill himself was fatal to the potential fact question set up in the answer.”

Recognizing the possibility that “more homicides could be considered suicide following this case,” Mark A. Romance, Miami, FL, cochair of the Section’s Commercial & Business Litigation Committee, suggests practitioners take a lesson from this opinion. He counsels that attorneys on both sides of the issue should strategically focus on “evidence of proximate cause and intent.”

This focus on intent and proximate cause is likely what the beneficiaries will try on remand, Bonnie adds. “I imagine they will now aggressively contest what was deemed true in their Rule 12(c) motion—that Mr. Caldwell was suicidal and both threatened or wanted to commit suicide by cop. How that will impact jury questions or summary judgment motions remains to be seen.”


  • Joseph D. Jean and Janine M. Stanisz, “Context Matters: Broad Exclusions and Narrow Coverage Grants,” Ins. Coverage (May 28, 2019).
  • Fla. Stat. § 782.02: Justifiable Use of Deadly Force.