The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in favor of the estate of a man who died in South Bend, lived and worked in Chicago, but considered his principal residence to be his parents’ home.
Stephen Stetz, a graduate of Holy Cross College, died in October 2015 from his injuries after being hit by an uninsured motorist in South Bend.
His parents, who are residents of Uniontown, Ohio, opened an estate in the St. Joseph County, Indiana, probate court. They then filed a lawsuit in St. Joseph Circuit Court against their auto insurance provider, Grange Mutual Casualty Co., as well as the driver of the vehicle that struck their son, and the owner of that vehicle.
Grange argued Stetz was not covered under his parents’ policy because he did not meet the definition of insured family member. He was a resident of Chicago, having a full-time job there and an apartment. Also, he listed the Windy City as his address on his Facebook page.
The estate countered that Stetz still had many connections to his parents’ home. He drove a car owned by his mom and dad that had Ohio license plates, and he had an Ohio’s driver’s license that listed Uniontown as his address. He kept clothes and personal items at his parents’ home, he was registered to vote in Ohio, and he still depended on his parents for financial support.
St. Joseph Circuit Judge John Broden noted the insurance policy defines a covered family member as someone whose “principal residence” is at the location showed in the declarations. Although the term is not defined, the court found Stetz was much like a graduate student living at school while studying. His “principal residence” was his parents’ home in Ohio, so he is entitled to coverage under the insurance policy.
The Court of Appeals affirmed in Grange Mutual Casualty Co., Mark Madejek, and Alice Blaisdell v. Estate of Stephen P. Stetz by Jeffrey and Dana Stetz, Personal Representatives, 71A05-1708-CT-1720.
Because Grange is an Ohio corporation, the parties agreed that Ohio substantive law controls in this case. The Indiana appellate panel pointed to Prudential Property & Casualty Insurance Co. v. Koby, 705 N.E. 2d 748 (Ohio Ct. App. 1997) which noted the term “residence” has “shades of meaning.”
“… we find that the words principal residence cannot be given ‘a definite legal meaning,’” Judge James Kirsch wrote for the court. “Rather, the Policy’s undefined terms ‘principal residence’ are reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation, are ambiguous, and therefore must be construed against Grange and liberally in favor of coverage.”
In a footnote, the Court of Appeals maintained even if the language was not ambiguous, the ruling would have been the same. The designated evidence in the case demonstrated that Stetz’s principal residence was his parents’ home, and the estate was entitled to summary judgment.