Football Player’s Estate Sues Fiancee to Get Auto Insurance Proceeds
I read on Profootballtalk.com today that the Estate of former Cincinnati Bengal Wide Receiver Chris Henry has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against his ex-fiancee, Loleini Tonga, as a result of the December 16, 2009 automobile accident that took his life. If you are a football fan like I am, the name Chris Henry will immediately cause you to shake your head: the classic cautionary tale of a young man who had so much promise in life only to be sidetracked time and time again by his personal problems. Henry was a talented player at West Virginia University, but he was drafted lower than his talent would have dictated because of character concerns relating to both on and off the field conduct. His career as a Cincinnati Bengal began in 2005 with promise, but was soon derailed by multiple run-ins with the law, which led to multiple NFL-imposed suspensions and his release by the Bengals in early 2008. After his release, Henry seemed to turn his life around, ultimately being given a second chance by the Bengals to start the 2008 season. While his 2008 and 2009 statistics were fairly pedestrian, the larger accomplishment was that Henry had stayed out of trouble and seemingly turned a corner in his life.
Unfortunately, Henry’s life took one final public dark turn on December 16, 2009. Henry sustained fatal injuries after falling out of the back of a pickup truck being driven by Tonga. Police said that a domestic dispute between Henry and Tonga erupted, which caused Tonga to get into the truck to drive away. Henry apparently ran after the truck and jumped into the bed of the pickup. Tonga drove for approximately a half mile, with Henry beating on the window telling her to stop the truck before he fell. Police decided not to press charges, citing that there was no evidence that Tonga was driving recklessly or with excessive speed. In fact, it was determined that Tonga was driving well under the speed limit at the time of the accident. Tonga told ESPN that Henry had jumped out of the vehicle, believing that he had no intention to harm himself.
Now, two years later, Henry and the manner of his death are back in the news. The lawsuit is being filed by his Estate, the beneficiaries of which are Henry’s three children with Tonga. The Estate’s attorney has already publicly stated that the goal of the suit is not to secure money from Tonga, but rather to obtain proceeds of her and her mother’s auto liability insurance policies. Considering that the stated goal of the lawsuit against Tonga is to obtain money from an insurance company that will benefit Tonga’s children, one has to wonder how cooperative Tonga will want to be with her insurer in defending the case. Given the circumstances of the accident, from a legal standpoint, Henry appears to be the more responsible party in causing his death – as Tonga was leaving to get away from the dispute, Henry jumped into the back of the truck uninvited. Then, rather than attempt to secure himself in the back of the truck safely, he instead stood and banged on the window. Tonga, meanwhile, apparently took no aggressive or reckless action to eject Henry. Assuming that Tonga reiterates her earlier contention that Henry jumped out of the vehicle, there is little reason to suggest any liability on her part, particularly when taken together with the police investigation that determined she did nothing reckless. To the extent that Tonga may have an interest in helping the plaintiffs in this case, she must be mindful of her previous statements, particularly those that she gave to those police. If her testimony in the civil suit differs materially from prior statements, her insurance carrier could assert claims that she is colluding with the Estate to obtain a favorable settlement. The possible scenarios could place Tonga, her insurance company, and her attorney in awkward positions as the case moves forward.