Betting on a stranger's death is frowned upon, even if it might be legal

Joseph Caramadre, of Rhode Island, faces 66 criminal charges for an investment plan which happened to involve betting on the deaths of terminally ill people.

Should you be allowed to profit from a stranger's death? That's the question ProPublica poses.

Joseph Caramadre does not profit from death in a proverbial sense; he is not an arms dealer, or a tobacco farmer. Nor does he profit from death in an indirect way as, say, funeral parlours do.

He made his money through betting on when terminally ill people would die.

Jake Bernstein writes:

Society has long frowned on certain behaviors. Taking out an insurance policy on a friend or neighbor and killing them? Not acceptable. Taking out a life insurance policy that gambles your neighbor will die soon, even without your help, also crosses the line. Today, it is well-established law that one must have what is called an "insurable interest" before purchasing an insurance policy on someone else's life. The person who benefits from the policy must be a relative or business associate who himself would face financial or familial loss from the death.

Insurable interest worked fine for 200 years or so until the life insurance business itself changed. Despite its name, the industry doesn't sell as much "life insurance" anymore. Life companies now peddle financial services, particularly annuities. Variable annuities were developed in the 1950s, initially as a way to give teachers retirement options. Insurable interest was not an issue and could have been an impediment to widespread adoption of the product.

Caramadre did his research and concluded that Rhode Island law did not require that people buying variable annuities have an insurable interest.

In Rhode Island, in other words, you can buy an annuity for just about anyone. Which is what Caramadre did. Pick the right person, and if they don't die, your investment keeps paying out; if they do die, the "death benefit" kicks in, and your original capital is repaid.

The problem Caramadre ran into is that, although you don't need to have an interest in someone to take out an annuity in them, you do still need to have their permission. All good – you can follow his lead, and pay them a fee for the use of their name. Unfortunately, when the insurance company finds out what you're doing, it's tricky to prove that you haven't been engaging in large scale identity-theft. Because all your associates are dead.

In November last year, Caramadre and an associate were indicted on 66 counts; a criminal trial is scheduled to begin this November. Financial innovation isn't always pain-free, it seems.

A patient in a Colorado hospice meets the animal therapist. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How will Labour handle the Trident vote?

Shadow cabinet ministers have been promised a free vote and dismiss suggestions that the party should abstain. 

At some point this year MPs will vote on whether Trident should be renewed. It is politics, rather than policy, that will likely determine the timing. With Labour more divided on the nuclear question than any other, the Tories aim to inflict maximum damage on the opposition. Some want an early vote in order to wreak havoc ahead of the May elections, while others suggest waiting until autumn in the hope that the unilateralist Jeremy Corbyn may have changed party policy by then.  

Urged at PMQs by Conservative defence select committee chair Julian Lewis to "do the statesmanlike thing" and hold the vote "as soon as possible", Cameron replied: "We should have the vote when we need to have the vote and that is exactly what we will do" - a reply that does little to settle the matter. 

As I've reported before, frontbenchers have been privately assured by Corbyn that they and other Labour MPs will have a free vote on the issue. Just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members support unilateral disarmament, with Tom Watson, Andy Burnham, Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle among those committed to Trident renewal. But interviewed on the Today programme yesterday, after her gruelling PLP appearance, Emily Thornberry suggested that Labour may advise MPs to abstain. Noting that there was no legal requirement for the Commons to vote on the decision (and that MPs did so in 2007), she denounced the Tories for "playing games". But the possibility that Labour could ignore the vote was described to me by one shadow cabinet member as "madness". He warned that Labour would appear entirely unfit to govern if it abstained on a matter of national security. 

But with Trident renewal a fait accompli, owing to the Conservatives' majority, the real battle is to determine Labour's stance at the next election. Sources on both sides are doubtful that Corbyn will have the support required to change policy at the party conference, with the trade unions, including the pro-Trident Unite and GMB, holding 50 per cent of the vote. And Trident supporters also speak of their success against the left in constituency delegate elections. One described the Corbyn-aligned Momentum as a "clickocracy" that ultimately failed to turn out when required. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.