People purchase Accidental Death insurance hoping that coverage would exist if they die due to accidental means. The interpretation of the words “accidental means” has been a subject of heated debate in the insurance industry and courts across the country.

Insurers tend to claim that the definition is a very narrow one and does not include cases where there is a chance the death was caused by an illness, intoxication or a self-inflicted injury. One of the most complicated issues of AD&D coverage arises in cases of death resulting from autoerotic asphyxiation (AEA).

Autoerotic asphyxiation is the practice of limiting the flow of oxygen to the brain during masturbation in an attempt to heighten sexual pleasure. The practice is variously called asphyxiophilia, autoerotic asphyxia, or hypoxyphilia.

Different methods can be used to achieve the level of oxygen depletion needed, such as hanging, suffocation with a plastic bag over the head, or chest compression, self-strangulation with ligature, gas or solvents. The most common form of this behavior in which the reduction in oxygen is achieved involves the application of pressure to the veins carrying blood out of the head.

The asphyxial state stimulates nerve centers in the brain, and produces a state of hypercapnia (an increase in carbon dioxide in the blood) and a concomitant state of hypoxia (a decrease in oxygen in the blood), all of which result in an increased intensity of sexual gratification[1].

Autoerotic asphyxiation can result in death, as it does in many cases. Death can be due to equipment malfunction, errors in the placement of the noose or ligature, or other mistakes. Data from the United States, England, Australia, and Canada indicate that one to two hypoxyphilia-caused deaths per million population are detected and reported each year.

Issues arise when the families of those who died while practicing autoerotic asphyxiation attempt to collect under the decedent’s life insurance policy or the accidental death portion of it.

Many insurance companies consider death by AEA to be excluded from coverage as non-accidental (in the case of AD&D coverage), or intentionally self-inflicted (in the case of standard life coverage). The laws covering this never-boring issue are complex and differ from state to state. A beneficiary whose life insurance or AD&D claim has been denied due to AEA should consult a life insurance attorney in order to understand whether the claim has been properly handled.

Many federal courts have held that AEA is an injury and does not fall under the category of suicide or self-inflicted injuries. Under the federal law, autoerotic asphyxiation is a repetitive pattern of behavior that individuals engage in over a period of years, and generally the intent of the individuals performing this act is not death.

When performed successfully, the act results only in a temporary decrease in oxygen levels that causes light-headedness, and usually does not leave visible marks on the neck[2]. As the famous Second Circuit Judge Ellsworth Van Graafeiland wrote, [U]ntil someone, whose opinion I respect, honestly informs me that as a general proposition, he or she would not hesitate to undergo a session of autoerotic asphyxiation through strangulation, I will not change my mind. Partial strangulation is an injury. A suicidal motive is not required”[3].

Many state courts, on the other hand, have held that deaths caused by autoerotic asphyxiation were caused by self-inflicted injuries, affirming denial of coverage to beneficiaries. Thus, the outcome of your claim denial appeal may depend on what law governs the insurance contract.

Laws applicable to such cases constantly evolve and you need an experienced attorney to protect your rights. If your loved one died from AEA or your claim has been denied, call Kadetskaya Law Firm for a free consultation.

Call us now at (888) 510-2212. Competitive contingent fees.


[1]Padfield v. AIG Life Ins. Co., 290 F.3d 1121 (9th Cir. Cal. 2002)
[2]American Bankers Ins. Co. v. Gilberts, 181 F.3d 931 (8th Cir. Minn. 1999)
[3]Critchlow v. First UNUM Life Ins. Co. of Am., 378 F.3d 246, 265 (2d Cir. 2004)