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Lawyers representing Heath Ledger's three-year-old daughter, Matilda, have vowed to financially punish a US life insurance company for its failure to pay a $US10 million ($NZ18.5 million) policy the Oscar nominated actor took out four months before his prescription drug overdose death.
The insurance company, ReliaStar Life Insurance, has decided not to pay until it investigates if Ledger committed suicide in his rented Manhattan loft in January. The New York Medical Examiner's Office rule the overdose accidental.
Its investigators plan to interview actress and owner of the loft Mary-Kate Olsen, the masseuse who found Ledger's lifeless body, doctors who treated the movie star, and some of his co-stars.
William Shernoff, the lawyer representing Matilda's trust, said the delay in payment was adding to the stress suffered by the Australian actor's family and he would pursue significant punitive damages from ReliaStar that could amount to "tens of millions of dollars".
"They are causing a lot of emotional distress to the family so we are going to go after the insurance company with both barrels," Shernoff told AAP today.
Shernoff, on behalf of Matilda's trust, sued ReliaStar in July and they scored a significant legal victory last week.
US District Court Judge George King sided with the trust and said the lawsuit should not be heard in his court, but in California's Superior Court.
Shernoff originally filed the lawsuit in the Superior Court, but in August lawyers for ReliaStar were successful in moving it to the District Court.
Judge King's ruling would work in the trust's favour and give it a better shot at winning damages, Shernoff said.
"We wanted it in state court," Shernoff said.
"In a state court, to get a jury verdict you only need nine of the 12 jurors." District court requires a unanimous verdict of 12 jurors.
The Ledger family was upset ReliaStar appeared to reject autopsy results by the NY Medical Examiner's Office that the 28-year-old movie star died from an accidental overdose of a cocktail of prescription painkillers and sleeping pills, including OxyContin, Vicodin, Valium and Xanax.
Suicide and foul play were officially ruled out as a cause of death by the NY Medical Examiner's Office.
"I think they're treading on some pretty soft ground," Shernoff said.
"We think they should be paying it (the policy) and that is why we are accusing them of bad faith.
"Under Californian law if we can show their refusal to pay is in bad faith, we can get additional damages.
"Punitive damages can be anything. It could be tens of millions. Whatever the jury decides." Ledger took out the policy in June 2007, and Matilda was named on the policy as the beneficiary.
ReliaStar is a unit of Dutch financial services giant ING.