The gun group denied payment of a $150,000 death benefit for a Belle Plaine farmer killed while driving a tractor and under the influence.
No one disputes that John Balk had been drinking or that he was intoxicated the day he died. His tractor tipped over and fell on him as he was landscaping his farm.
The drinking became an issue when his widow, Annalee Balk, tried to collect $150,000 from the National Rifle Association, which had issued an accidental life insurance policy to John Balk less than a year before the Sept. 28, 2010, incident.
The NRA, citing a clause in the policy, refused to pay because the company said Balk was driving a motor vehicle while intoxicated when he died on the family farm in Belle Plaine, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court last month.
The intoxication was a clear violation of the policy and thus invalidated the $150,000 payout, the group said in a Jan. 11, 2011, letter denying the claim, according to the suit.
But Annalee Balk claims the policy is good and the NRA is wrong because her husband's John Deere tractor is not considered a motor vehicle under state law.
The widow lost an internal NRA appeal and eventually filed suit in Scott County District Court against the group, best known for advocating gun rights. Last month the case was transferred to U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.
The attorney representing the NRA, Michael Berger of Minneapolis, did not return calls seeking comment.
"My client believes this to be a private matter and has no further comments regarding the ongoing litigation," Annalee Balk's attorney, Todd Coryell, said in an e-mail.
But in his court filing, Coryell wrote, "This denial is wrongful. John Balk was not operating a motor vehicle as defined by Minnesota statutes. ... the tractor was not being operated on a public road, was not required to be licensed, and was simply used for standard farm work by the deceased."
The NRA has millions of dues-paying members around the country, and they receive basic and minimal life insurance coverage as part of their $35-a-year membership fee. John Balk took out additional coverage about 10 months before the accident, with the policy starting on Nov. 1, 2009. All premiums were paid and up to date at the time of his death, according to court files.
Law enforcement officials said Balk died at the scene. An autopsy at the Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner's Office in Hastings determined that Balk's death was an accident but "acute ethanol intoxication" was a significant condition contributing to his death.
That was the basis for the NRA's denial of the claim on the grounds that such a death was excluded in the policy rider.
Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281