Injured in Fight, Hockey Player Loses Appeal for Disability Insurance

Aug 23, 2005

A Colorado appeals court has affirmed a lower court’s ruling that a hockey player who injured his hand in a fight is not entitled to disability benefits, since the fight was a premeditated event, not an accident.
Warren Rychel was a left wing for the Colorado Avalanche of the National Hockey League (NHL) when Underwriters at Lloyd’s of London (Underwriters) sold him a professional athlete disability insurance policy. Rychel filed a claim after injuring his left hand in a fight during a game. Underwriters denied the claim and filed a complaint for declaratory relief, seeking a determination that Rychel is not entitled to benefits under the policy. Rychel counterclaimed, alleging bad faith and breach of contract.
Underwriters then moved for summary judgment, arguing, among other things, that Rychel’s injury did not result from an unexpected event as required by the policy and that he was not permanently disabled under the terms of the policy.
Bypassing the defendant’s first argument. Rychel claimed that his role on the ice was that of an “enforcer,” which required him “to play a particularly tough physical game and to engage in fights with opposing players. He contended that his injury prevented him from forming a tight fist and, thus, rendered him unable to fight effectively. And he asserted that because he could no longer fight effectively, neither the Avalanche nor other NHL teams had signed him to play for them.” Thus, he claimed, he was disabled “from participating in professional hockey as an enforcer.”
Underwriters then filed several motions to strike documents Rychel submitted with his response and to preclude the use of other matters identified through discovery. The court granted most of Underwriters’ motions.
The trial granted summary motion to the defendant “because the injury did not occur as a result of an unexpected event.” The plaintiff appealed.
The appeals court began its review by noting “the pertinent terms of the insurance policy,” which are as follows:
“In the event that the insured sustains Bodily Injury caused in and of itself by an Accident occurring during the Policy Period and which, solely and independently of any other cause, results in the Total Disablement directly culminating in the Permanent Total Disablement of the insured and providing the Total Disablement commenced within six (6) months of the date of such Accident, then the Insurer agrees to pay the benefits, stated in the Schedule, to the insured.”
The policy further defines “accident” as a “single, sudden, and unexpected event, which occurs at an identifiable time and place and which causes unexpected bodily injury at the time it occurs.”
It then picked apart Rychel chief argument on appeal that “his injury occurred not as a result of an expected punch, a probable strike of a fist, or an anticipated physical blow. Rather, it occurred when his hand inadvertently got caught in the fabric of his opponent’s sweater.
“Thus, Rychel argues that ‘event’ means only the precise moment when his hand became tangled in the opponent’s sweater and does not refer to the general circumstances immediately preceding that moment.”
The appeals court disagreed.
It wrote that the purpose of the insuring agreement is to provide benefits to Rychel if an accident caused an injury that renders him completely and totally unable to participate in his occupation as a hockey player.
“In other words, its purpose is not merely to provide benefits if Rychel becomes permanently totally disabled, but to provide benefits if that occurs as the result of an accident. For example, he would be entitled to benefits if an automobile accident caused injury that rendered him permanently totally disabled from his occupation as a hockey player. This would be so even if the disability did not render him unable to otherwise earn substantial income as a non-player in professional hockey or in another occupation. We perceive no basis to conclude that the purpose of the policy was otherwise.” Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s London Subscribing to Certificate No. 986557 v. Warren Rychel; Ct. of App.; No.: 03CA1959; 6/30/05
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff-appellee) Patricia A. Thatcher of Cage Williams Abelman & Layden, P.C. in Denver, Colorado and Vincent J. Davitt and Allyson S. Taketa of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, L.L.P. in Los Angeles, California. (for defendant-appellant) Mark Tschetter of Hopkins & Tschetter, P.C in Aurora, Colorado and Robert F. Riley and Mark S. Demorest of Riley & Hurley in Dearborn, Michigan.


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