50406 Record No. 941247
Decided: June 9, 1995
Present: All the Justices
Since the trial court did not err in sustaining a plea of the statute of limitations in a case involving recovery of the proceeds under two life insurance policies, that judgment is affirmed.
Statutes of Limitations — Breach of Contract — Life Insurance — Tolling — Accrual of Actions
On March 13, 1988, the insured was shot and stabbed to death. His wife was the beneficiary on each of two life insurance policies. Both policies had been issued by the defendant company and each provided that payment would be made upon receipt of proof of the insured's death. A week after the murder, the widow completed a claim and sent it along with a death certificate to the defendant. The defendant acknowledged receipt of the claim, but refused to pay the proceeds to the widow because she was a suspect in the murder. The widow filed an action seeking the proceeds under one policy on December 28, 1989 and a separate action on the other on November 1, 1990. She was awarded a judgment in the first action, but that judgment was reversed and the case remanded. In February 1992 the widow was granted a nonsuit in each action. Over a year and one-half later, the daughter of the deceased qualified as administrator of his estate and, in February 1994, filed motions for judgment seeking to have the insurance proceeds be paid to the estate. The trial court sustained the insurance company's pleas of the statute of limitations, ruling that the limitation period was five years from the time the cause of action accrued and that the accrual date was the date of the insured's death. The plaintiff appeals.
1. Statutes of limitations are strictly enforced and exceptions thereto are narrowly construed; a statute should be applied unless the General Assembly clearly creates an exception, and any doubt must be resolved in favor of the enforcement of the statute.
2. Code Sec. 8.01-246(2) provides that an action for breach of a written contract must be filed within five years after the cause of action accrues and Code Sec. 8.01-230 provides that a cause of action for breach of contract accrues and the limitation period commences to run from the date of the alleged breach.
3. With respect to insurance policies, when a policy requires a demand for payment and proof of death, the statute of limitations begins to run on the date of the demand and proof.
4. Here the express language of the policies required payment when the insurer received proof of the insured's death, which was March 30, 1988, at the latest.
5. Consequently, the plaintiff's 1994 lawsuits are time barred.
Appeal from a judgment of the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond. Hon. Melvin R. Hughes, Jr., judge presiding.
Anthony G. Spencer (Mark K. Tyndall; Morchower, Luxton Whaley, on brief), for appellant.
Robert B. Delano, Jr. (Sands, Anderson, Marks Miller, on brief), for appellee.
The sole issue in this appeal is whether the trial court erred in sustaining pleas of the statute of limitations.
In two actions filed on February 15, 1994, Angela Denise Arrington (Angela), administrator of the Estate of Charles E. Arrington, deceased (Charles), sued Peoples Security Life Insurance Company (Peoples Security), alleging breach of contract and seeking recovery of the proceeds under two insurance policies issued on Charles' life. Peoples Security filed pleas of the statute of limitations, and, after conducting an evidentiary hearing, the trial court sustained the pleas and entered judgments in favor of Peoples Security. Angela appeals.
The facts relating to the pleas are undisputed. On March 13, 1988, Charles was shot and stabbed to death. At the time of his death, he was insured by a policy of life insurance in the amount of $50,000 (Policy No. U00095393) and by another policy in the amount of $25,000 (Policy No. 0302649180). Both polices had been issued by Peoples Security. The named beneficiary under both policies was Delores R. Arrington (Delores), Charles' wife. Each policy provided that payment of the policy proceeds to the named beneficiary would be made upon Peoples Security's receipt of proof of the insured's death.
On March 21, 1988, Delores completed a "Claimant's Statement For Death Claims" and forwarded it and a copy of Charles' death certificate to Peoples Security. By letter dated March 30, 1988, Peoples Security wrote to Delores and acknowledged that it had received the claims. However, Peoples Security subsequently refused to pay the insurance proceeds to Delores because she was a suspect in Charles' murder.
On December 28, 1989, Delores filed an action in the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond to recover the proceeds under the $50,000 policy, and, on November 1, 1990, she filed another action in said circuit court to recover the proceeds under the $25,000 policy. Delores was awarded a judgment in the amount of $50,000 in the first action; however, we reversed that judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. Peoples Security Life Ins. v. Arrington, 243 Va. 89, 412 S.E.2d 705 (1992). Thereafter, Delores requested and, by orders entered February 4, 1992, was granted a nonsuit in each action.
In that action, the trial court had ruled that Delores was not precluded from recovering the insurance proceeds because she was not covered by the definition of "slayer" contained in Code Sec. 55-401(1). In reversing the judgment, we ruled that Code Sec. 55-401(1) did not preclude Peoples Security from attempting to prove that Delores "procured, participated in or otherwise directed" Charles' death, in violation of the common law. Arrington, 243 Va. at 92, 412 S.E.2d at 707.
On November 19, 1993, Angela qualified as administrator d.b.n. of Charles' estate. By letter dated January 12, 1994, Angela demanded that the insurance proceeds be paid to the estate. Peoples Security refused payment, and Angela filed the present actions.
The record shows that Delores previously had qualified as administrator of Charles' estate. However, she resigned as administrator, and Angela succeeded to the office.
In sustaining the pleas of the statute of limitations, the trial court adopted Peoples Security's contention and ruled that the limitation period was five years from the time the causes of action accrued, Code Sec. 8.01-246(2), that the causes of action for breach of contract accrued on the date of the breach, and that the accrual date was March 13, 1988, the date of Charles' death. At trial, Angela agreed that the applicable limitation period was five years and that the causes of action accrued when the breach of contract occurred. Angela, however, did not agree that the causes of action accrued on the date of Charles' death. She advanced several arguments below, as she does on appeal, regarding when the causes of action accrued.
Angela contends that, with respect to Charles' estate, the contract was not breached until Peoples Security refused the estate's demand for payment, made by the estate's letter dated January 12, 1994. Alternatively, Angela contends that it was not reasonable for the estate to demand payment until "it became clear that there was no other beneficiary under the policy, i.e., on March 13, 1993, after Peoples Security had refused payment to Delores . . . and the statute of limitations precluded her from pursuing her claim any further." In other words, according to Angela, the statute of limitations did not begin to run against the estate until the limitation period had expired as to Delores. Finally, Angela contends that the statute of limitations was tolled from the time of the entry of the trial court's judgment in favor of Delores until this Court's reversal of that judgment, a period of 14 months.
In oral argument before this Court, Angela contended that Peoples Security never has refused to make payment, and, therefore, the statute of limitations has not begun to run. This argument was not advanced at trial. Consequently, we will not consider it on appeal. Rule 5:25.
Statutes of limitations are strictly enforced and exceptions thereto are narrowly construed. Consequently, a statute should be applied unless the General Assembly clearly creates an exception, and any doubt must be resolved in favor of the enforcement of the statute. Westminster Investing Corp. v. Lamps Unlimited, 237 Va. 543, 547, 379 S.E.2d 316, 318 (1989); Burns v. Stafford County, 227 Va. 354, 359, 315 S.E.2d 856, 859 (1984).
[2-3] Code Sec. 8.01-246(2) provides that an action for breach of a written contract must be filed within five years after the cause of action accrues. Code Sec. 8.01-230 provides that a cause of action for breach of contract accrues and the limitation period commences to run from the date of the alleged breach. With respect to life insurance policies, we have said that, when a policy requires a demand for payment and proof of death, the statute of limitations begins to run on the date of the demand and proof. Page v. Shenandoah Life Ins. Co., 185 Va. 919, 925-27, 40 S.E.2d 922, 925-26 (1947).
Applying the foregoing principles of law to the present case, we must reject Angela's contentions. We do not agree that the causes of action accrued at one time for Delores and at a different time for the estate; nor do we agree that the running of the statute may be tolled, or an exception applied, in the absence of a clear statutory enactment to such effect.
[4-5] In the present case, the life insurance policies provide when a cause of action accrues. The express language of the policies requires Peoples Security to pay the proceeds when Peoples Security "receive[s] proof of [the] Insured's death." The record establishes that Peoples Security acknowledged, in its letter to Delores dated March 30, 1988, that it had received proof of Charles' death. Therefore, at that time, at the very latest, the five-year statute of limitations began to run. Consequently, Angela's actions filed on February 15, 1994, are time barred.
Accordingly, we will affirm the trial court's judgments.