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Jane Pierce spent nine years struggling alongside her husband, Todd, as he fought cancer in his sinus cavity. The treatments were working. Then, in July 2009, Todd died in a fiery car crash. He was 46. That was the beginning of a whole new battle for Jane, this time with Todd's life insurance company, MetLife.

A state medical examiner and a sheriff in Rosebud County, Mont., concluded that Pierce's death was an accident, caused when he lost control of his silver GMC pickup after passing a car on a two-lane road.

Their findings meant Jane Pierce was eligible to collect $224,000 on the accidental death insurance policy that Todd had through his employer, power producer PPL Corp. MetLife, however, refused to pay. The nation's largest life insurer told Pierce on Dec. 8, 2009, that her husband had killed himself. The policy didn't cover suicide, the insurer said, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its April issue.

"How dare they suggest such a thing," says Pierce, 44, a physician's assistant in Colstrip, a Montana mining and power production city of 2,346 people.

She says she's insulted that the man who courageously battled his disease for a decade was accused by an insurance company of abandoning his wife and two sons -- one a Marine, the other a National Guardsman -- and giving up on his fight to live.

Widow goes to court

Pierce argued with MetLife for months. She supplied the insurer with the autopsy report, medical records and a letter from the medical examiner saying the death was accidental. MetLife still said no. Finally, in May 2010, she sued.

In July, a year after Todd Pierce's death, MetLife settled and paid Jane Pierce the full $224,000 due on the policy. The New York-based insurer, as part of the agreement, denied wrongdoing and paid her no interest or penalties for the year during which it held her money.

Life insurers have found myriad ways to delay and deny paying death benefits to families, civil court cases across the United States show. Since 2008, federal judges have concluded that some insurers cheated survivors by twisting facts, fabricating excuses and ignoring autopsy findings in withholding death benefits.

Insurers can make erroneous arguments almost with impunity when it comes to the 112.8 million life and accidental death policies provided by companies and associations to their employees and members. That's because of loopholes in a federal law intended to protect worker benefits.

ERISA loopholes

Under that law -- the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA -- insurers can win even when they lose in court because they can keep and invest survivors' money while cases are pending.

Congress enacted ERISA in 1974, after bankruptcies and union scandals caused thousands of employees to lose benefits. The law requires employers to disclose insurance and pension plan finances, and it holds company and union officials personally accountable for maintaining sufficient funding.

In order to achieve ERISA's goals, federal courts have ruled that employees must surrender their rights to jury trials and compensatory and punitive damages if they sue an insurer for wrongfully denying coverage. Judges have reasoned that the measure encourages companies and insurers to continue providing benefits.

ERISA puts these issues under federal jurisdiction, so state regulators sometimes say they can't help consumers.

Delaying tactics benefit insurers

"The most important federal insurance regulation of the past generation is ERISA," says Tom Baker, deputy dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia. "If ever a law backfired for the public, ERISA is the perfect example."

Life insurers do pay most claims in full -- more than 99 percent of the time, according to data from the American Council of Life Insurers, a Washington-based trade group. But nobody keeps track of how often companies delay making those payments or how often they use spurious reasons.

As of 2009, the latest year for which figures are available, insurers in the United States were disputing an accumulated total of $1.3 billion in claims, the ACLI reports. Included in that amount were $396 million in death benefits turned down in 2009. In the same year, insurers paid out $59 billion, the ACLI reports.