Cocaine claim could spur insurance probe; Companies may contest payments to Lewis widow


BOSTON -- The explosive allegations that Reggie Lewis used cocaine could trigger an investigation by the insurance companies that made good on his multimillion-dollar contract with the Boston Celtics and his widow.

Friday, William J. Dailey, the attorney for Dr. Gilbert H. Mudge Jr., Lewis' chief cardiologist, said "a significant portion" of the $13 million to $14 million Donna Harris-Lewis collected soon after her husband's death "could be contested" because Lewis denied he used cocaine on the insurance application.

To qualify for the policy, Lewis, a former player at Dunbar, said in writing that he had never used cocaine or any other illegal drugs. But the malpractice lawsuit against Mudge by Harris-Lewis has unearthed allegations that Lewis had used cocaine while he was a student at Northeastern University in the mid-1980s.

Within a month of his death in July 1993, The Equitable Life Assurance Society of New York, which wrote the policies, paid the Celtics $12 million of the $17 million in coverage that had been written on Lewis and his basketball contract. Most of the money has been paid annually to Harris-Lewis to make good on her husband's five-year, $16 million contract with the team.

Under the terms of the policy, if any substantial misrepresentation or fraud is uncovered, Equitable could refuse to pay the death benefit to the Celtics.

Soon after the initial payment, however, Equitable launched an investigation to determine whether Lewis or anyone else had lied about drug use on the insurance application.

Sources familiar with the case said Harris-Lewis declined to answer any questions presented her by the insurance company during the investigation. In February 1994, Equitable ended the probe and paid the Celtics the remaining $5 million on Lewis's contract.

Mudge, of Brigham and Women's Hospital, has said that two weeks before his death Lewis admitted he had used cocaine.

The allegation, made in written answers to interrogatories, was contained in hundreds of pages of documents submitted in the malpractice case brought by Harris-Lewis.

While the trial, scheduled to begin in May or June, will focus on whether Mudge and three other doctors at Brigham and Women's Hospital made mistakes that caused Lewis' death, the allegations about Lewis' possible use of cocaine are a central issue.

In depositions, two Northeastern officials said they had been told by the doctor for the school's basketball team that Lewis and another player failed a drug test for cocaine in February 1987.

Also, Wayne Brown, a friend of Lewis' from Baltimore and at Northeastern, claimed he snorted and smoked cocaine with Lewis on several occasions, and provided him the drug for free up to 20 other times.

Brown is the only witness among about 65 who have been deposed by attorneys on both sides who has testified that he saw Lewis use cocaine.

Friday, Harris-Lewis' attorney dismissed Brown's allegations.

"If you search and turn over every rock, a Wayne Brown will slither out and say anything for his 15 minutes of fame," Robert G. Harley said. "The thought that [Reggie Lewis] had a drug friendship with such a low-life would be funny if it weren't so sad."

Pub Date: 2/07/99

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