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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. A traditional parade of attorneys? Really Evansville? Y'all need to get out more. When is the traditional parade of notaries? Nurses? Sanitation workers? Pole dancers? I gotta wonder, do throngs of admiring citizens gather to laud these marching servants of the constitution? "Show us your billing records!!!" Hoping some video gets posted. Ours is not a narcissistic profession by any chance, is it? Nah .....

  2. My previous comment not an aside at court. I agree with smith. Good call. Just thought posting here a bit on the if it bleeds it leads side. Most attorneys need to think of last lines of story above.

  3. Hello everyone I'm Gina and I'm here for the exact same thing you are. I have the wonderful joy of waking up every morning to my heart being pulled out and sheer terror of what DCS is going to Throw at me and my family today.Let me start from the !bebeginning.My daughter lost all rights to her 3beautiful children due to Severe mental issues she no longer lives in our state and has cut all ties.DCS led her to belive that once she done signed over her right the babies would be with their family. We have faught screamed begged and anything else we could possibly due I hired a lawyer five grand down the drain.You know all I want is my babies home.I've done everything they have even asked me to do.Now their saying I can't see my grandchildren cause I'M on a prescription for paipain.I have a very rare blood disease it causes cellulitis a form of blood poisoning to stay dormant in my tissues and nervous system it also causes a ,blood clotting disorder.even with the two blood thinners I'm on I still Continue to develop them them also.DCS knows about my illness and still they refuse to let me see my grandchildren. I Love and miss them so much Please can anyone help Us my grandchildren and I they should be worrying about what toy there going to play with but instead there worrying about if there ever coming home again.THANK YOU DCS FOR ALL YOU'VE DONE. ( And if anyone at all has any ideals or knows who can help. Please contact (765)960~5096.only serious callers

  4. He must be a Rethuglican, for if from the other side of the aisle such acts would be merely personal and thus not something that attaches to his professional life. AND ... gotta love this ... oh, and on top of talking dirty on the phone, he also, as an aside, guess we should mention, might be important, not sure, but .... "In addition to these allegations, Keaton was accused of failing to file an appeal after he collected advance payment from a client seeking to challenge a ruling that the client repay benefits because of unreported income." rimshot

  5. I am not a fan of some of the 8.4 discipline we have seen for private conduct-- but this was so egregious and abusive and had so many points of bad conduct relates to the law and the lawyer's status as a lawyer that it is clearly a proper and just disbarment. A truly despicable account of bad acts showing unfit character to practice law. I applaud the outcome.

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