Massachusetts Court: Homeowner’s Policy Won’t Cover Overdose Death

August 25, 2009

A homeowner’s policy will not pay damages to the mother of a teenager who died after overdosing on painkillers he stole from the man with whom he and his mother lived, a panel of justices from the Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled.

The teenager, Stephen McMaster, 18, died of an apparent suicide in April 2001 after overdosing on the painkiller propoxyphene. At the time, McMaster and his mother, Nichole Gallagher, were living in the home of another man, John Scaduto. Scaduto had purchased the painkiller after a doctor prescribed it to him.

The Massachusetts Property Insurance Underwriting Association (MPIUA) insured Scaduto’s home. After her son’s death, Gallagher sued Scaduto, claiming that he was negligent in her son’s death because he had left the drugs in an accessible place despite knowing that her son was in a fragile emotional state.

When Scaduto demanded that MPIUA pay the claim on his behalf, the insurer denied his request, citing common policy language that excludes bodily injury claims arising out of the use of a controlled substance.

A Massachusetts Superior Court has already ruled in favor of the insurer, stating that the death and Scaduto’s negligence fell within the exclusion.

Gallagher, however, appealed that decision, arguing to the Appeals Corurt that her son’s death arose out of Scaduto’s legitimate use of the painkillers and was therefore an exception to that exclusion. It was an argument that Justice Mark Green wrote “was not entirely without persuasive force.”

However, Green wrote in rejecting Gallagher’s appeal, “the argument is flawed… as it overlooks… McMaster’s own use” of the drug. “The excluded use (of the drug by McMaster) stands as the immediate cause of his death; whatever causal contribution Scaduto’s use may have furnished was decidedly more remote.”

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