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Justices rule on underinsured motorist coverage case

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The Indiana Supreme Court has held that a tortfeasor’s vehicle was underinsured according to state statute because the benefit amount actually paid to a woman was less than the per-person limit of liability of the underinsurance endorsement of an insurance policy that applied to all the family members involved in the accident.

In Hannah Lakes v. Grange Mutual Casualty Company, No. 89S05-1109-CT-531, the justices unanimously agreed with the result the Indiana Court of Appeals reached, but for a different reason.

The case involves a severe auto accident in 2004 where Hannah Lakes and several family members were injured. The tortfeasor, James Isaacs, had an insurance policy that limited bodily injury liability to $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident. Lakes’ sister, Anitra, was driving and had an insurance policy with underinsured motorist coverage for $50,000 per person and per accident. Their father, Jerry Lakes, also had UIM coverage for $100,000 per person and $300,000 per accident.

After the Lakeses filed a state suit against Isaacs and Anitra Lakes’ carrier, Grange Mutual Casualty Company, Isaacs’ carrier paid its limit but Grange filed for summary judgment on the basis that the tortfeasor’s vehicle was not an underinsured vehicle as a matter of law because the per-accident limit of his policy was equal to the UIM per-accident limit of Anitra’s policy. The trial court granted Grange’s summary judgment motion, holding that Jerry Lakes’ $50,000 policy limit was equal to the UIM limit Anita Lakes had in her policy and that it didn’t matter that more than one family member was receiving benefits. The trial court also held Hannah Lakes couldn’t recover under her father’s insurance because that policy excluded coverage for property damage or bodily injury for family members inside the vehicle.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the tortfeasor’s vehicle was underinsured and that Hannah was entitled to recover up to $44,900 in UIM benefits under Anitra’s policy. The justices agreed, although for a different reason. They reaffirmed the decision from a decade ago in Corr v. American Family Insurance, 767 N.E.2d 535 (Ind. 2002).

The Supreme Court agreed with Grange and the trial court that the regime established by the intermediate appellate court may encourage “collusion” among insureds to structure their relationships in order to trigger Corr. But the justices disagreed with the proposed “fix” to that issue, adopting a different standard from another line of precedent.

Justice Frank Sullivan wrote for the court that when there are multiple claimants on these types of cases, courts should examine each claim individually and compare each with the per-person limits of applicable UIM coverage. The per-accident limits have no bearing on whether a vehicle is underinsured, Sullivan wrote, and the per-accident limits come into play only to limit the insurer’s liability.

The trial court judgment is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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