New Supreme Court Law Aids FamilyJanuary 26, 2004
On January 23, 2004, the Illinois Supreme Court, in an unanimous decision written by Justice Robert Thomas, made law in the case of Khalid J. Bajwa, Administrator of the Estate of Muhammad A. Cheema, a/k/a Manwar Ahmad Bajwa, Deceased v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, No. 95051, by holding a family could sue in wrongful death an insurance company for the negligent issuance of a life insurance policy.
“The facts of this case read like a Hollywood script,” said Francis Patrick Murphy, a partner at Corboy & Demetrio who represented the family before the Appellate and Supreme Courts, “but the Supreme Court, in affirming the Appellate Court really crystalized the law on behalf of this family and other Illinois families.”
In December, 1992, Muhammad U. Cheema, unrelated to decedent, met with a MetLife agent to apply for a life insurance policy on his alleged father. U. Cheema designated himself as beneficiary and arranged for the policy premiums to be deducted from his own bank account. U. Cheema said he would take the policy to his “father” to obtain his signature. This was a violation of MetLife’s standard procedure rules requiring an agent to meet personally with the proposed insured to witness the signature and to ask certain questions of him. Nevertheless, the agent agreed to this violation. U. Cheema returned the next day with a “signed” application.
The policy required a medical examination. The medical exam resulted in several discrepancies: the addresses of the insured were different; the social security numbers were different; and certain past medical histories were different. A paramedical examiner certified he met with “A. Cheema” but the person he met was 5'11", 195 pounds whereas the real A. Cheema was 5'8", 213 pounds.
Before issuing the policy, a MetLife underwriter noted additional irregularities in the application. Despite these discrepancies, MetLife issued a $200,000.00 policy on January 18, 1993.
Shortly after the policy was issued, a “Muhammad Cheema” called on five different occasions asking questions about coverage in different death scenarios including a home invasion – murder in his Chicago apartment. MetLife found these calls “strange enough” to send the case to the Consulting Services area where the file was “noted.” No one contacted Muhammad A. Cheema. Nine days after the last call, Muhammad A. Cheema was beaten and stabbed to death in his Chicago apartment. U. Cheema was a suspect and fled the country to Pakistan after the murder.
The family, his wife and children, claimed Muhammad A. Cheema was killed by Muhammad U. Cheema for the life insurance benefits. The family claims the negligently issued life insurance policy was the motive for the murder.
A wrongful death case based on negligence was dismissed in the trial court. The trial court held that MetLife could only be liable in negligence if it actually knew of the murderous plot and failed to act.
The First District Appellate Court, in an unanimous decision written by Justice Joseph Gurder, overturned part of the dismissal. The Appellate Court recognized the growing trend from other state supreme courts that held an insurance company could be liable in these situations without actual knowledge of the murderous plot.
The Supreme Court adopted the reasoning of the Appellate Court and made it the law of Illinois.
“Thank God this case does not happen with great frequency,” Murphy said, “but for those families devastated by the negligent issuance of a life insurance policy on a loved one, which does serve as a motive to murder that person, the families may seek justice against the insurance company under several probable theories.”
Muhammad A. Cheema, a/k/a Manwar Ahman Bajwa, is survived by his wife, his son, and his four daughters. All but one daughter now reside in Pakistan.
The Supreme Court’s opinion is available upon request.