Methamphetamines vs. Narcotics – What do they mean anyway?

Post by Lee Floy

Hello all!

I’m Lee Floyd, a self-admitted sports junkie who practices law at the Collins & Lacy Columbia office. When I’m not wake boarding or playing golf in my spare time, I’m enjoying the company of my wife, Kelli, and our two dogs, Fenway and Dustin.  I’ve been with the firm about four years practicing primarily insurance coverage, professional negligence and products liability law. I love what I do, and now I get to share it with you through this blog. So here’s my first post. I hope you like it, and I look forward to your suggestions for more. – Lee.

Methamphetamines vs. Narcotics – What do they mean anyway? The ordinary and usual meaning rule cuts in favor of the insurer in Hutchinson v. Liberty Life Insurance Co.

Meaning of Narcotics

The South Carolina Court of Appeals recently reversed an order granting summary judgment to an insured under an accidental-death insurance policy, holding methamphetamine fell within the ordinary and usual meaning of the undefined term “narcotic.” Hutchinson v. Liberty Life Insurance Co., 393 S.C. 19, 709 S.E.2d 130 (Ct. App. 2011).

Here’s what happened.

The accidental death insurance policy excluded coverage for injury resulting from an insured being “under the influence of any narcotic.” The policy did not define “narcotic.” The insured died two days after the policy became effective when he drove a tractor-trailer off an interstate highway. The death certificate cited the cause of death as blunt force trauma but also listed methamphetamine use as another significant condition contributing to the insured’s death. Liberty Life denied the claim under the policy citing the illegal drug use exclusion. The insured’s beneficiary brought a declaratory judgment action seeking coverage and for bad faith and violation of the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act.

In the original ruling, the Circuit Court held the term narcotic did not include methamphetamine because the drug is a stimulant rather than a depressant and did not fall within the insured’s expert testimony that the scientific definition of narcotic drugs only includes drugs that “induce pain relief, drowsiness, sleep and similar states of stupor.”

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding the Circuit Court erred in applying the scientific definition of the term narcotic rather than a definition using the usual understanding of the term narcotic to the ordinary person. The Court then cited cases using the terms narcotic and methamphetamine interchangeably and quoted the reasoning that the term narcotic ‘“has come to have a generic meaning for drugs considered to be illegal.’” Id. at 25, 709 S.E.2d at 134 (quoting Doe v. Gen. Am. Life Ins. Co., 815 F. Supp. 1281, 1285 (E.D. Mo.1993)).

Main Takeaway: In applying this generic definition, the Court held a layperson would commonly understand methamphetamine to be a narcotic drug based on its widespread illegal use.

About Collins & Lacy, P.C.

Collins & Lacy is a statewide business defense firm in South Carolina that delivers legal representation for our clients through solid preparation, execution, and client-oriented service aimed at success. Located in the State’s capital city of Columbia, the firm represents local, regional and national clients in the areas of construction; hospitality/retail and entertainment law; insurance/bad faith; products liability; professional liability; commercial transportation; privacy, data management, and cybersecurity; mediation; criminal defense; and governmental affairs/issue advocacy.