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Ledger child seeks payout from insurer

ReliaStar is probing whether the movie star committed suicide. Suit demands a death benefit of $10 million.

September 30, 2008|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A trust representing the 3-year-old daughter of movie star Heath Ledger, who died Jan. 22 at age 28, is suing a life insurance company that the trust contends is balking at paying a $10-million death benefit.

A New York City coroner's report ruled that Ledger, who played the Joker in the summer smash "The Dark Knight," died from accidental causes involving his "abuse of prescription medications."

The drugs included painkillers known commercially as OxyContin and Vicodin, anti-anxiety medications Valium and Xanax, the sleeping pill Restoril and Unisom, an antihistamine that's used as a sleep aid.

But in court documents, ReliaStar Life Insurance Co. asserts a provision of Ledger's 2007 policy that allows it to be contested while it investigates whether the actor committed suicide in his Manhattan loft.

ReliaStar says it also is probing the possibility that Ledger showed "bad faith" in applying for the policy. Insurance experts say such bad faith could include false statements made on an application.

William M. Shernoff, a Claremont attorney representing the trustee for Ledger's daughter, Matilda Rose, accused the insurer of stalling because "there's not a shred of evidence that points to suicide." ReliaStar "is just engaging in a fishing expedition so it can hold on to its money longer," he said.

Shernoff accused ReliaStar of failing to do its homework before it sold the term life insurance policy to Ledger in June 2007. He said ReliaStar, before approving the application, did not ask for the names of Ledger's physicians but now it is "asking us for the names of doctors, psychiatrists and all kinds of records."

Such alleged after-the-fact risk evaluation is prohibited by California insurance laws, Shernoff said. He accused ReliaStar of "stalling" to "get out of paying or to delay paying."

ReliaStar, a unit of Dutch financial services giant ING, has countered that those same insurance laws allow it to investigate whether Ledger made "any material misrepresentations" on his insurance application during the first two years the policy was in force.

Neither ING nor its lawyer would comment on the Ledger trustee's complaint, which was originally filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on July 23 and subsequently shifted to U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

"ING has not rendered a decision on this claim," said spokesman Dana Ripley. "Given that life insurance is a very private and personal matter, I'm not going to comment beyond that."

Matilda Rose is Ledger's daughter with actress Michelle Williams, with whom he starred in the 2005 hit "Brokeback Mountain."

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marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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