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COA adopts common-sense rule on providing insurance policies

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has adopted a common-sense rule many other courts throughout the country have implemented, in requiring insurers to provide copies of their insurance policies to the insured if they ask for one following a loss.

If that doesn’t happen, the state’s intermediate appellate court holds that the insurer would then be banned from arguing in subsequent litigation that a policy holder didn’t comply with all the terms and couldn’t receive coverage.

The ruling comes today in Auto-Owners Insurance Company v. Gary Hughes, 18A02-1006-PL-659, a case out of Delaware Circuit Court where Judge John Feick had denied a summary judgment from Auto-Owners Insurance that a home fire insurance coverage suit was barred by a one-year statute of limitations.

An arson fire in March 2002 destroyed Gary Hughes’ home in Eaton, and part of his insurance policy with Auto-Owners said that the company couldn’t be sued unless there’s full compliance with all of the policy terms and that the suit must be filed within a year of the loss or damage. Hughes hired a public adjuster as his agent and 11 months later, Auto-Owners denied the claim due to “arson, fraud, misrepresentation, false swearing, and lack of determination of ownership or an insurable interest.” Hughes filed a breach of contract and breach of duty suit in May 2003, 14 months following the loss.

The insurance company argued that Hughes’ suit should be barred because it wasn’t filed within a year, but the trial court twice denied summary judgment motions. The court ruled in favor of Auto-Owners on the punitive damage claim but denied the bad faith claim and one-year limitation defense, and a jury awarded Hughes $166,792.83 in damages.

One of the issues on appeal became whether Hughes had received a copy of his insurance policy following the loss, as he claimed to have requested. He argued that Auto-Owners shouldn’t be able to raise that claim, as it didn’t provide him with a copy, while the insurance company contended it had supplied him with one.

Specifically, the appellate panel found that the principles of equity and fairness create a limited duty to provide a copy of an insurance policy when the insured has requested one, and that failure to discharge that duty would prevent an insurer from asserting noncompliance with policy terms. Citing caselaw from Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin, the Hoosier appellate panel adopted that rule as its own.

“We think that this rule reflects the realities of the typical relationship between an insurance company and an insured, at least when the insured is a private individual,” Judge Cale Bradford wrote. “Very few insureds will ever read, much less attempt to understand, their insurance policies, unless of course they happen to suffer a loss. We also venture to guess that very few homeowners will ever take the precaution of storing a copy of their policy at a secure location outside of the home, making it that much more likely that a copy will be destroyed in a loss and not be available when needed most.”

But even with that holding, Hughes lost because the case record proved that Auto-Owners had supplied him with a copy of his policy within a month of his loss in March 2002. Therefore, Auto-Owners should have been able to raise the one-year limitation argument and should have prevailed on that point, the appellate court ruled.

The case was reversed and remanded to the trial court with instructions to enter summary judgment in favor of Auto-Owners.

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