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Seeking an exclusion for innocent co-insured

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A LaPorte County woman who lost her home to a fire, allegedly started by her estranged husband, is at the center of a legal dispute with her insurance company that could set precedent in Indiana caselaw.

The case focuses on the issue of excluding so-called “innocent co-insureds” from coverage after intentional acts. Insurance companies have traditionally denied claims when a fire was set by only one party listed on the joint policy.

il-insurance03-15col.jpg Ice Miller LLP attorneys (from left) Elizabeth Timme, Sarah Murray and Angela Krahulik are working pro bono to help a LaPorte County woman left homeless by a house fire.(IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

However, a trend has been emerging nationally, according to an article in Property Casualty 360. Increasingly, courts have been holding that the language of “any insured” or “an insured” included in many homeowners’ policies does not enable insurance providers to bar innocent co-insureds from coverage.

Arizona, California, Idaho, Massachusetts and Michigan are some of the states where courts have struck down the coverage denials, finding the intentional act exclusion was invalid.

Gwendolen Womack, a LaPorte County resident, was denied coverage under her policy’s intentional act exclusion clause. Although her husband, Robert, has been charged with setting the house on fire and remains in jail, Allstate Property & Casualty Insurance Co. did not honor her claim because the loss was caused by one of the insured individuals.

A trio of attorneys from Ice Miller LLP has taken Womack as a pro bono client. They counter that by having her claim refused, Womack, a survivor of domestic violence, is continuing to be victimized. They have filed a complaint in LaPorte Superior Court against Allstate, asking for unspecified declaratory relief, damages and costs arising from the house fire and denial of coverage.

Indiana courts have ruled for innocent co-insureds in past cases, namely American Economy Ins. Co. v. Liggett, 426 N.E.2d 136 (Ind. Ct. App. 1981), and Fuston v. National Mutual Ins. Co., 440 N.E.2d 751 (Ind. Ct. App. 1982). However, the state’s judiciary is believed to have never addressed separating co-insureds in cases of domestic violence.

“This is an opportunity to set a good precedent and to make some pretty good public policy,” said Kerry Hyatt Blomquist, legal director at the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Continued victimization

Womack lost her home and her belongings to a fire on May 31, 2012. If not for the advice of a police officer, she could have lost her life.

kerry blomquist Blomquist

Her marriage had endured instances of abuse, but in May 2012, after her husband became violent during an argument, Womack gathered her two children and left. She subsequently filed a protective order that required her husband to stay away from the residence and her place of employment.

A law enforcement official who escorted Womack to the house insisted she gather some essential items and stay elsewhere for her own protection. Womack spent the night at her parents’ house with the intention of returning to her own home after work the next day.

Hours after Womack settled at her parents, her husband called her father and said the house was on fire. By the time Womack was allowed to go to her house, her husband had been arrested and everything she and her children owned was gone.

“We have nothing,” Womack said. “We don’t have anything.”

In a letter dated Nov. 21, 2012, Allstate rejected Womack’s claim. The company stated the policy covering the home imposed joint obligations, which means the responsibilities, acts and failures to act of one insured person will be binding to the other insured person.

Allstate went on to explain that its own investigation had determined that Robert Womack had “both motive and opportunity to set the fire.” It also contended that both Gwen and Robert Womack had “made material misrepresentations regarding this claim.”

Therefore, based upon the policy’s language, the company stated it would not be providing coverage.

Blomquist noted denial of insurance claims from domestic violence victims not only continues the victimization of individuals who have already been abused but also bolsters the position of their abusers who are trying to either kill their victims, devastate them or cause them to be homeless.

womack-burnedhouse-15col.jpg The house was allegedly burned by the woman’s estranged husband. (Photo submitted)

In this case, Blomquist believes Womack has a right to at least half of the amount provided for in the homeowner’s policy.

Allstate declined to further discuss the basis for its decision since the matter is currently under litigation. However, in an email to Indiana Lawyer, the insurance company pointed to its support of domestic violence victims.

“We were very concerned to learn of the unfortunate and criminal circumstances surrounding Ms. Womack’s claim and are saddened by her personal situation,” the email stated, adding the company has invested more than $30 million in support of domestic violence victims. “Allstate understands the devastating impact that domestic violence can have on individuals and households. We are strongly committed to help reduce the incidence and impact of this terrible crime.”

Since the fire, Womack has no permanent place to live. She maintains with the insurance payment, she would be not only able to afford a residence, but also she could have kept her home out of foreclosure.

Now her family is separated, with her teenage daughters staying in two separate locations while she lives with a neighbor.

“It’s hard to say ‘good night’ over a text message,” Womack said.

Unique and special issue

Angela Krahulik, partner at Ice Miller, has handled insurance cases that involved denial of coverage because of an intentional act, but those have mostly been related to environmental contamination matters. Never has she seen a claim be denied where an allegation of domestic violence results in a criminal act.

The Womack case, Krahulik said, involves a unique and special issue. Namely, the victim of the abuse has to deal with the mess caused by the criminal act while the accused abuser is not penalized by the denial of coverage.

Krahulik, along with associate attorneys Elizabeth Timme and Sarah Murray, decided to take this case after hearing Blomquist talk about Womack’s situation during a luncheon for the Women and the Law Division of the Indianapolis Bar Association.

The complaint they filed has one count against Womack’s husband under the Indiana Crime Victims Relief Act. It also lists three counts against Allstate: breach of duties of good faith and fair dealing, breach of contract and declaratory relief.

Cases in other states challenging the intentional act exclusion as applied to domestic violence victims have been carried to the appellate level and, in California, all the way to the state’s Supreme Court.

Krahulik is not looking that far ahead. She hopes Allstate will rescind its denial and provide Womack with coverage.

Although this is the first case of insurance denial to a domestic violence victim to reach the Indiana courts, Blomquist suspects there have been others. But those victims did not have the luck in securing pro bono legal assistance.

Blomquist said she trusts the courts to understand the equity issue in the Womack case. And, noting the national trend, she has faith in the court system.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” she said. “I’m just glad we can at least make the argument.”

At this point, with the complaint filed and Ice Miller attorneys on her case, Womack described herself as “scared.”

“I feel like if they can’t help me, then I’m done,” she said.•

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

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  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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