Autoerotic Asphyxia Death Wasn’t Accidental, 7th Circuit Says

CHICAGO (CN) — A man’s death by autoerotic asphyxia was a self-inflicted injury, the Seventh Circuit ruled 2-1 Monday, so his insurer is not required to pay accidental death benefits to his widow.

“Some people enjoy harming themselves,” U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Brennan wrote for the majority, citing the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 manual. “That harm is still an injury, regardless of its popularity or the pleasure some people may derive from it.”

Whatever motivates the act — whether it’s recreational or suicidal — “Strangling oneself to cut off oxygen to one’s brain is an injury, full stop,” Judge Brennan said.

Linno Llenos, 56, was found hanging from his basement rafters in August 2016 with a towel and rope wrapped around his neck. Wilmette Police officers responded to a call that he had committed suicide.

A medical examiner concluded that Llenos died from autoerotic asphyxia, which involves cutting off the supply of oxygen to the brain during masturbation to heighten pleasure. The medical examiner reached that opinion because of the presence of a release mechanism to prevent strangulation and four rubber genital rings.

Minnesota Life Insurance paid Llenos’ widow Letran Tran $517,000 in life insurance benefits, but denied her claim for $60,000 in accidental death benefits as beneficiary of her husband’s policy.

The insurer explained its decision in a December 2016 letter. While the death was an accident, Llenos did not commit suicide, and was “engaged in an activity which was pleasurable to him when an unfortunate accident occurred.” It was not an “accidental injury” but a self-inflicted injury, which was excluded under terms of the policy, the insurer said.

“Although perhaps more unusual, autoerotic asphyxiation is no different than sky-diving, motorcycle riding, or sailing, in that they are activities people take part in for enjoyment, but which may conceivably lead to their death in the event of accident,” the letter stated.

Tran sued Minnesota Life in January 2017, and a federal judge ruled in her favor in March 2018.

But the Seventh Circuit reversed Monday.

“Llenos placed a noose around his neck and stepped off a stool, strangling himself,” Brennan wrote, joined by U.S. Circuit Judge Daniel Manion. “The resulting hypoxia caused his euphoria, his blackout, and his death — all the result of one intentionally inflicted injury.”

U.S. Circuit Judge William Bauer dissented, finding that the majority’s opinion mistakenly separated Lleno’s masturbation from his act of asphyxiation, and misunderstood the sexual nature of the act.

“Llenos’ conduct was undoubtedly risky but was not inherently injurious,” Bauer wrote in dissent. “The determination that autoerotic asphyxiation is an injury ignores the fact that when done correctly it can and does have a recreational purpose with no lasting health consequences.”

Minnesota Life could clear up any ambiguity by expressly excluding coverage for death by autoerotic asphyxiation, Bauer wrote, as it has done for skydiving and bungee jumping.

“Autoerotic asphyxiation is an inherently dangerous sexual practice. The matter at hand shows that even seasoned practitioners can succumb to cerebral hypoxia and die,” Bauer concluded.

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