A life insurance (search) company cheated the widow of late race car driver Dale Earnhardt (search) out of millions of dollars by refusing to pay up when he died, her lawyer said in the opening statements of a civil trial Wednesday.

The insurer, United of Omaha (search), argued the $3.7 million policy was never in effect because Earnhardt had not taken the required physical before he died in a crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001.

"We made a fair decision. We made a reasonable decision. There's no question we made an unpopular decision, but we did what we're supposed to do based on what occurred," company lawyer Stephen Coles told the jury.

Richard Childress Racing took out the policy on Earnhardt's behalf and had made the first $5,000 premium payment. It received a second bill just two days before Earnhardt died in the last-lap crash on Feb. 18, 2001.

John Morrow, lawyer for Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, accused the insurer of failing to properly investigate the claim.

But Coles countered that despite the payment, the policy hadn't attached to the 49-year-old Earnhardt, one of the most popular drivers in the history of stock-car racing, because he had put off requests to undergo a physical.

"Just because somebody files an application doesn't mean they get a policy," Coles said. "It's not automatic. It's especially not automatic when it's the amount of money in this case."