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Court to take landlord-tenant insurance query

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The Indiana Supreme Court has accepted a certified question from a federal judge, and will now consider a state law issue that it hasn't before: whether a tenant is considered a co-insured under a landlord's fire insurance policy if there's no express agreement saying otherwise.

An order dated Monday was posted online today in Auto-Owners Insurance Company a/s/o David M. Brown v. Carolyn Young, d/b/a Peddlers Corner Cafe, No. 94S00-0909-CQ-417. The case comes from the Southern District of Indiana's New Albany division, where U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker asked the state justices to weigh in on the issue according to Indiana Appellate Rule 64.

Filed in September 2008, the case involves an Orange County woman who leased property for a cafe from plaintiff David M. Brown, who was insured by the Michigan-based company Auto-Owners. The two are siblings and didn't have a formal written lease agreement, though they discussed generally the terms of the agreement. She said Brown told her he had building insurance and that she'd only need coverage for her personal property and assets, and that's what she obtained, according to the complaint.

A September 2006 fire damaged the property and Brown received nearly $84,000 from his insurance carrier, but just before the two-year-statute of limitations ran out Auto-Owners filed a complaint that alleged the fire and damage was a result of Young's negligence and that it should be able to recover the payments to Brown.

In a motion to dismiss, Young contended that Auto-Owners has no subrogation rights against her because her interests were insured under Brown's insurance policy. Judge Barker analyzed the issue and relied on Sutton v. Jondahl, 532 P. 2d 478 (C.App.Okla. 1975), which said that a tenant should be deemed a co-insured under a landlord's fire policy if there isn't a written agreement. But since that precedent isn't controlling here and this is an issue of first impression for Indiana law, Judge Barker asked the Indiana Supreme Court to consider the question.

With that, Young's federal motion to dismiss has been administratively closed pending a resolution by the Indiana Supreme Court. The state court wants simultaneous briefing in the case, and the main and response briefs are all due by Dec. 2. Any oral arguments will be scheduled at a later time, the court's order says.

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