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Alaska v. Arbuckle (7/3/97), 941 P 2d 181
NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal correction before
publication in the Pacific Reporter. Readers are requested to bring errors to the
attention of the Clerk of the Appellate Courts, 303 K Street, Anchorage, Alaska
99501, phone (907) 264-0608, fax (907) 264-0878.
THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF ALASKA
STATE OF ALASKA, )
) Supreme Court No. S-7230
) Superior Court No.
v. ) 3AN-93-6521 CI
DAVID ARBUCKLE, Personal ) O P I N I O N
Representative of the Estate )
of Ronald C. Arbuckle, ) [No. 4846 - July 3, 1997]
Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of
Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage,
Joan Woodward, Judge.
Appearances: Kathleen Strasbaugh, Assistant
Attorney General, and Bruce M. Botelho, Attorney General, Juneau,
for Appellant. Joe P. Josephson, Josephson & Bair, Anchorage, for
Before: Compton, Chief Justice, Rabinowitz,
Matthews, Eastaugh, and Fabe, Justices.
The State of Alaska appeals from the superior court's
grant of summary judgment in favor of David Arbuckle, the personal
representative of the estate of Ronald C. Arbuckle (Arbuckle). The
superior court ruled that the personal representative was entitled
to recover $100,000 for the accidental death of Arbuckle, plus
attorney's fees and costs.
II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
Arbuckle was an employee of the Department of
Transportation and Public Facilities of the State of Alaska when he
suffered a fatal heart attack. As a member of the Public Employees
Local 71, AFL-CIO, Arbuckle was covered by a collective bargaining
agreement that included the following travel insurance provision:
The Employer shall insure the life of every
employee against accidental death while in
travel status away from their duty station in
the amount of one hundred thousand dollars
($100,000) at no cost to the employee. The
employee shall name the beneficiary.
The Travel Accident Exclusions section of the employee handbook
provides in relevant part:
[The accidental death] policy does not cover
an individual for any loss caused by or
resulting from . . . either directly or
indirectly from illness or disease or
bacterial infection other than infection that
occurs simultaneously with and because of an
accidental act or wound . . . .
On August 14, 1992, when he suffered the heart attack,
Arbuckle was forty-nine years old and working on travel status in
Holy Cross, a village on the Yukon River. Arbuckle and a co-worker
were in the process of dismantling and replacing overhead doors at
a shop building located at the Holy Cross Airport. He had been
working in Holy Cross for four days. That morning Arbuckle and a
co-worker loaded their duffel bags, sleeping bags, cots, tool
boxes, winding springs, and a 178-200 pound generator welder onto
the back of a pickup truck. Arbuckle and two co-workers then drove
to the Yukon River. Their task was to load the equipment onto a
skiff, which was beached with its bow resting on the shore. The
pickup was then backed as close to the skiff as possible. Arbuckle
and a co-worker commenced unloading the pickup. They had not yet
moved the generator when Arbuckle collapsed, falling to the ground
next to the pickup. Arbuckle was immediately taken to a local
health center a short distance away. A health worker administered
CPR, but Arbuckle was declared "dead on arrival"shortly after
According to Dr. William Breall, Arbuckle "would not have
died at the exact point in time that he did die if he had not been
doing the lifting that he was doing on August 14, 1992." Dr.
Breall further stated:
I cannot say with reasonable medical certainty
that [Arbuckle] would be alive today had he
not been employed by his employer on August
14, 1992. What I can say is that he would not
have died at that particular point in time. I
can state with reasonable medical certainty
that [had Arbuckle] remained in a non-physical
mode, i.e., a resting mode, he would not have
. . . died at that particular point in time.
He could have died later that same day or the
following day just walking up a flight of
stairs. He could have died a few days later,
just carrying his duffel bag to the airport.
The reason I cannot say that he would be alive
today is because he had an extremely severe
heart condition that was demonstrated by
Dr. Breall found that Arbuckle had "severe
atherosclerotic narrowing of his coronary arteries." One artery
was totally occluded, and the other two major arteries were almost
totally occluded, having "only a pinpoint opening or a pinpoint
lumen through those arteries." Death resulted as Arbuckle "was
doing a certain amount of work. This work resulted in an increased
work of the heart muscle . . . . In this particular case, Mr.
Arbuckle was unable to supply an adequate amount of oxygenated
blood to the heart muscle." This led to his fatal heart attack.
According to Dr. Breall,
[i]t makes no difference whether or not the
items that Mr. Arbuckle was unloading from the
truck at the time of his cardiac arrest were
heavy or light. The mere activity of doing
any type of minimal to mild lifting or
unloading in a susceptible individual, where
there is virtually no blood flow to the heart
muscle, would be sufficient to result in a
cardiac arrest and death.
The doctor opined that, considering the seriousness of Arbuckle's
physical condition, "he would have dropped dead probably within
hours or days after he did."[Fn. 1] "Normal physical activities
and normal emotionally stressful activities could have resulted in
a cardiac arrest." The doctor stated that something such as
"watching your favorite football team on television lose"could
serve as an emotionally stressful situation.
Arbuckle had evidence of the heart disease as early as
1989. A physician, who he saw for a urinary complaint, ran tests
which indicated "coronary artery atherosclerosis." Arbuckle was
given Lovastatin to lower his cholesterol. The records indicated
no advice regarding the condition, such as a limitation on work,
being given. Arbuckle stopped taking Lovastatin on his own, as he
felt well, in 1990.
Shortly after Arbuckle's death, his union filed a
grievance claiming accident insurance benefits on behalf of the
family. The State rejected the claim, stating that "the death
certificate indicates that [Arbuckle's] death was of natural
causes." Arbuckle's son then filed a complaint in superior court,
where he prevailed on summary judgment. This appeal then followed.
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
This court will uphold summary judgment only if there are
no genuine issues of material fact in the record and the moving
party was entitled to judgment on the law. Bishop v Municipality
of Anchorage, 899 P.2d 149, 153 (Alaska 1995). When the court
makes such a determination, all reasonable inferences must be drawn
in favor of the non-moving party. Id. As to questions of law,
this court applies its independent judgment and will adopt the rule
that is most persuasive in light of precedent, reason, and policy.
Chizmar v. Mackie, 896 P.2d 196, 200 (Alaska 1995).
The interpretation of contract language is a question of
law, subject to de novo review. Cox v. Progressive Cas. Ins. Co.,
869 P.2d 467, 468 n.1 (Alaska 1994). Insurance contracts are
interpreted "by looking to the language of the disputed policy
provisions, the language of other provisions of the policy, and to
relevant extrinsic evidence. In addition, we also refer to case
law interpreting similar provisions." Id. (citations omitted).
The State advances numerous arguments in support of its
contention that the superior court erred in ruling that the
bargained for travel accidental death and dismemberment insurance
benefits extended to Arbuckle. We find it necessary to address
only the State's claim that, since Arbuckle's death resulted from
illness or disease and was excluded from coverage, the superior
court should have granted summary judgment in the State's favor.
As noted at the outset, the State, pursuant to its
obligations under its collective bargaining agreement with
Arbuckle's union, obtained travel accidental death and
dismemberment insurance. The State obtained insurance which did
not cover any loss resulting
either directly or indirectly from illness or
disease or bacterial infection other than
infection that occurs simultaneously with and
because of an accidental cut or wound . . . .
Given the record before the superior court, we conclude that it
erred in granting summary judgment for Arbuckle and in not granting
summary judgment in favor of the State. In our view the travel
accident exclusion provisions quoted above control resolution of
this appeal. [Fn. 3]
In addition to the portions of the record set out
previously, we note that Dr. Breall reached the following
conclusions regarding the cause of Arbuckle's death:
[Arbuckle] obviously suffered from severe and
longstanding atherosclerotic occlusive disease of the coronary
arteries. He had significant obstruction of his coronary arteries
that was noted by treadmill testing in 1989. This atherosclerotic
coronary artery occlusive disease was not the result of his work
for the State of Alaska. This condition was secondary to a number
of non-industrial risk factors. These risk factors included
smoking, hypercholesterolemia, high levels of low density
lipoprotein, the male gender, as well as the aging process.
On the day of his death, [Arbuckle] had
virtually total occlusive disease of all of
his coronary arteries. He had very little blood flowing through
his coronary arteries. There was very little oxygenated blood
getting to his heart muscle.
The activity of unloading the pickup on the
morning of August 14, 1992 was sufficient work activity to have
caused an increased work of the heart. This increased work of the
heart required additional oxygen beyond a resting oxygenated state.
It was impossible to convey additional oxygen to the heart muscle
at this time because of the marked atherosclerotic obstruction of
all of the coronary arteries of [Arbuckle]. Because of this, he
developed a cardiac arrhythmia, ventricular fibrillation. This
cardiac arrhythmia led to a cardiac standstill and death.
The diagnosis section of the autopsy report concerning Arbuckle's
death reads: "Cardiac arrhythmia secondary to coronary
atherosclerosis." The Certificate of Death issued by Dr. Donald R.
Rogers (certifier of cause of death) states that the final disease
resulting in death was "Arteriosclerotic Heart Disease."
In our view, all of the evidence alluded to above
conclusively demonstrates that Arbuckle's death was caused "either
directly or indirectly from . . . disease." Thus, this loss is
excluded from coverage under the travel accidental death and
dismemberment insurance obtained by the State pursuant to its
collective bargaining agreement with Arbuckle's union. Our
conclusion that the superior court erred in granting summary
judgment to Arbuckle rather than to the State is in accord with
numerous decisions which have interpreted accidental death
insurance policies containing exclusionary clauses for losses
resulting indirectly or directly from disease. Rynerson v.
National Cas. Co., 513 N.W.2d 436, 437-38 (Mich. App. 1994), appeal
denied, 575 N.W.2d 452 (Mich. 1994) (finding no coverage where
activity was ordinary even though death caused by cerebral
hemorrhage after strain of fixing truck was unexpected); Valente v.
Equitable Life Assurance Soc'y, 502 N.Y.S.2d 876, 877 (N.Y. App.
Div. 1986) (finding no coverage for death caused by heart attack
resulting from ordinary physical exertion); Spangenburg v. Aetna
Life Ins. Co., 306 P.2d 707, 711-13 (Okla. 1957) (finding decedent
who died from heart disease after strain caused by raising his arms
in course of work not entitled to benefits where losses from
disease are excluded). See also Continental Cas. Co. v. Thompson,
369 F.2d 157, 159 (9th Cir. 1966); Central Nat'l Life Ins. Co. v.
Peterson, 529 P.2d 1213, 1217 (Ariz. App. 1975); Carroll v. CUNA
Mut. Ins. Soc'y, 894 P.2d 746, 756 (Colo. 1995); Byck v.
Commonwealth Life Ins. Co., 269 S.W.2d 214, 215-17 (Ky. 1954);
Hebert v. Hughes Tool Co., 539 So. 2d 789, 790, 792 (La. App.
1989); Tanner v. Life Ins. Co., 227 S.E.2d 693, 694-95 (Va. 1976).
In granting summary judgment to Arbuckle, the superior
court relied on INA Life Insurance Co. v. Brundin, 533 P.2d 236,
(Alaska 1975), Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. v. Anglin, 306 So.
2d 147 (Fla. Dist. App. 1975), and Life Insurance Co. v. Evans, 637
P.2d 806 (Mont. 1981). Two of these decisions are distinguishable
because, unlike the present case, they lacked an insurance
provision excluding losses caused directly or indirectly by
In Brundin this court ruled that an insured's heart
attack during hemorrhoid surgery could come within the coverage of
his accidental death insurance policy. In remanding for a new
trial, we said:
[W]e do not consider the policy language here
broad enough to cover deaths which are unexpected but natural.
This is an accident policy, not a life policy, and appellee never
argued that she would recover under the policy if her husband would
have suffered the cardiac arrest on the day it occurred no matter
where he was or what he was doing. To recover, she must prove that
the cardiac arrest was related to the surgery.[ [Fn. 4]]
Brundin, 533 P.2d at 243 n.24. We reiterated the point, stating
that appellant "need only to demonstrate that the cardiac arrest
was somehow related to the surgery, that is, that it would not have
occurred on that day anyway in the normal course of events." Id.
at 241. In Anglin, 306 So. 2d at 148, the court suggested that the
result would have differed if the policy had contained a clause
excluding losses resulting directly or indirectly from disease or
other bodily infirmity. More particularly, the Florida court said:
If the policy also contain[ed] a provision
excluding coverage where the death arises in
part from disease or other bodily infirmity,
the insurance company will be entitled to
judgment as a matter of law whenever the
undisputed facts show that disease materially
contributed to the death.
Id. at 149. Compare Evans, 637 P.2d at 807-09, which involved an
accidental injury not resulting from normal work duties or other
normal activities. In Evans, the court permitted recovery under an
accident policy with a disease exclusion when the insured, who had
a pre-existing heart condition, died after a wolf bite triggered
the heart attack. Id. at 807.
The superior court's entry of summary judgment in favor
of Arbuckle is REVERSED and the case REMANDED to the superior court
with directions to VACATE the summary judgment entered in favor of
Arbuckle and to enter summary judgment for the State of Alaska.
Arbuckle, a smoker who generally "smoked between one and one-
half to two packages of unfiltered cigarettes daily,"may or may
not have smoked the morning of his death. Dr. Breall termed
smoking a factor that also caused "constriction of the coronary
In addition, Arbuckle "drank a lot of coffee"the morning
of his death. Dr. Breall, however, stated that "the jury is still
out with respect to whether or not coffee plays any major roll in
people with this type of heart condition."
The State's other points are as follows: To the extent the
superior court relied on heavy lifting or extraordinary exertion as
precipitating or causing Arbuckle's death, there is a dispute of a
material fact precluding summary judgment. Additionally the State
contends that it did not waive its right to assert its affirmative
We reach this conclusion fully cognizant of the well-
established rule of interpretation that "insurance coverage
provisions should be broadly construed while exclusions are to be
interpreted narrowly." Whispering Creek Condominium Owners Ass'n
v. Alaska Nat. Ins. Co., 774 P.2d 176, 178 (Alaska 1989); Starry v.
Horace Mann Ins. Co., 649 P.2d 937, 939 (Alaska 1982); Hahn v.
Alaska Title Guar. Co., 557 P.2d 143, 144-45 (Alaska 1976).
The language of the policy in Brundin defined "bodily injury
[as being] caused by an accident resulting directly and
independently of all other causes." Brundin, 533 P.2d at 238.
Implicit in our holding reversing the superior court's grant
of summary judgment is our rejection of Arbuckle's contention that
the exclusionary clause for losses caused by disease contained in
the State's employee handbook was not incorporated into the
collective bargaining agreement. Again, the collective bargaining
agreement specified that the State "shall insure the life of every
employee against accidental death while in travel status away from
their duty station . . . ." Because this contract fails to specify
the terms of the bargained for insurance, we look to relevant
extrinsic evidence to interpret the contract with the goal of
enforcing the parties' intent and reasonable expectations.
Municipality of Anchorage v. Gentile, 922 p.2d 248, 255 (Alaska
1996). The parties' conduct after entering into a contract is
probative of the intent behind the agreement. Id. at 259; Peterson
v. Wikrum, 625 P.2d 866, 870 n.7 (Alaska 1981).
This court has previously held that a personnel policy
manual may be incorporated into an employment contract. Jones v.
Central Peninsula General Hospital, 779 P.2d 783, 787 (Alaska
1989). Whether an employee handbook was incorporated into an
agreement is a question of fact to be determined in each case. Id.
In the present case, as the State persuasively argues,
the employee handbook [is] a part of the
contract because it describes a bargained-for benefit, accidental
death insurance. The state was not required to provide any
additional consideration. The union accepted the policy by failing
to challenge it . . . . [Arbuckle] certainly assumed the policy
was in force in his opening memorandum.
There is no reason to suppose that Local 71
and its members were unaware that the contracted for policy
contained the exclusion outlined in the employee handbook, which
[Arbuckle] attached to his motion for summary judgment.
Although the collective bargaining agreement did not
explicitly permit the State to acquire insurance which excludes
from coverage death resulting directly or indirectly from disease,
we conclude that such an exclusion is within the parties'
reasonable expectations. Local 71 contracted for insurance for
"accidental death"of employees in travel status, not for general
life insurance. A layperson would reasonably expect accidental
death insurance to exclude from coverage death resulting directly
or indirectly from disease.