We appear to have an answer on what constitutes a narcotic

A few months ago I blogged about the common misconception that South Carolina has a ground for divorce for drug abuse when it really has a ground for divorce for habitual intoxication that can include narcotic intoxication.  That blog noted that the statutory definitions of narcotic differed from the medical definitions (with medicine increasing eschewing the term) which differed from the culture’s understanding of the term.  Based on these contradictory definitions, it was unclear whether marijuana use was grounds for divorce while cocaine use wasn’t or visa versa.

We appear to have an answer.  The April 20, 2011 Court of Appeals opinion in Hutchinson v. Liberty Life Insurance Co.393 S.C. 19, 709 S.E.2d 130 (Ct.App. 2011)dealt with the issue of what constituted being “under the influence of any narcotic” for purposes of a life insurance policy exclusion.  In Hutchinson, the policy holder was killed in a single vehicle accident and his beneficiaries sought proceeds under a life insurance policy.  After toxicology reports reflected the presence of huge amounts of methamphetamines in the policy holder’s blood, the insurance company denied coverage under the exclusion for injuries resulting from an insured being under the influence of any narcotic.  The beneficiaries argued that methamphetamines were stimulants and therefore not narcotics.  The issue on appeal is what constituted a narcotic for purpose of the life insurance policy.

On appeal Hutchinson’s counsel argued, as I note, that South Carolina Legislature repeatedly separates narcotics from other controlled substances in our state’s code.   Since methamphetamines are not listed as a narcotic under the state code, Hutchinson argued their use did not trigger the policy exclusion.  Counsel further argued that methamphetamines did not fall under the medical definition of narcotics.

The Circuit Court found that methamphetamine use did not trigger the policy exclusion but the Court of Appeals disagreed.  It noted that “[w]hen a policy does not specifically define a term, the term should be defined according to the usual understanding of the term’s significance to the ordinary person” and that the general understanding of the term “narcotic” has come to mean any illegal drug or addictive drug.  Accordingly, the illegal use of methamphetamines triggered the policy exclusion.

However the Hutchinson opinion also notes, “[w]here the words of an insurance policy are capable of two reasonable interpretations, the interpretation most favorable to the insured will be adopted.”  The Hutchinson opinion further notes that medical definitions of narcotic exclude methamphetamines and South Carolina’s statutory definitions of narcotics do not include methamphetamines.  I am unclear why these interpretations of the term “narcotic,” which would favor Hutchinson’s position, are unreasonable.

Still, unless the Hutchinson decision is overturned, I believe it is reasonably good authority that any habitual use of illegal or addictive drugs gives rise to a ground for divorce in South Carolina.

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