A federal judge ruled that an insurance company must pay out on the accidental death policy of a man who died of autoerotic asphyxiation, siding with the man’s widow that choking oneself for sexual arousal does not qualify as a self-inflicted injury.

The widow of Linno Llenos, Letran Tran, sued Minnesota Life Insurance Company when the company refused to pay about $60,000 in accidental death and dismemberment benefits. Llenos’ death had been ruled accidental, and the company did pay out on his life insurance policy. It balked at the accidental death policy, however, citing language in the policy that states no payment shall be made if the insured’s death is caused by “self-inflicted injuries.”

Jacqueline Herring
Jacqueline Herring | Smith Von Schleicher & Associates

In his opinion, Judge Robert M. Dow Jr. appeared to struggle with whether the circumstances leading to Llenos’ death qualify as “self-inflicted injuries.” Case law is divided on the topic, with some courts finding on behalf of the survivors of people who died of autoerotic asphyxiation and some finding on behalf of insurers.

“Review of … federal common law convinces the court that reasonable minds could disagree about whether Llenos’ intentional induction of [restriction of oxygen to the brain] is, in and of itself, a self-inflicted injury under the facts of this case,” Dow wrote. “As the split in case law … shows, it is difficult to say where the line should be drawn.”

In a letter appealing the insurance company’s refusal to pay her claim, Tran argued that the medical examiner had determined through clear evidence that Llenos’ death, though brought about through his actions, was purely accidental.

“He was engaged in an activity which was pleasurable to him when an unfortunate accident occurred,” Tran’s letter states. “Although perhaps more unusual, autoerotic asphyxiation is no different than skydiving, motorcycle riding or sailing, in that they are activities people take part in for enjoyment, but which may conceivably lead to their death in the event of an accident.”

The insurer, after having its own doctor review the circumstances of Llenos’ death, rebutted that practitioners of autoerotic asphyxiation know they are interrupting oxygen flow to their brain, an obviously high-risk activity.

“None of the other activities mentioned in your letter … involve intentionally interrupting an essential bodily function,” the company wrote.

Dow’s opinion ponders the more basic question of whether temporarily choking oneself – with safety mechanisms in place and without any intention of losing consciousness – falls under the legal definition of “injury.” He wrote that the company likened the situation to a person shooting himself in the foot, passing out and dying of blood loss – he didn’t intend to die, but his death was a direct result of his actions. Dow replied that any reasonable person would consider a gunshot wound an injury, and instead likened the case to an endurance swimmer who holds his breath too long and passes out underwater.

In the end, Dow wrote, it comes down to whether Llenos should reasonably have expected his actions to result in his death. As there is evidence he had engaged in the practice previously, he had failsafes in place and many people do engage in autoerotic asphyxiation without dying, Dow wrote Llenos had a reasonable expectation no harm would come to him.

“Since [Llenos’] loss of consciousness and resultant strangling were the direct cause of his death, [Minnesota Life Insurance] cannot logically argue that these results were substantially certain to result from his conduct, while at the same time conceding [Llenos] did not intend to kill himself,” the judge wrote.

Tran is represented by attorneys Jeffrey S. Deutschman and Bradley A. Skafish, of Deutschman & Associates P.C., of Chicago.

Minnesota Life is represented by attorney Jacqueline J. Herring, of Smith Von Schleicher & Associates, of Chicago. 

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