Thursday, March 31, 2022

Injured Party Found To Be a Resident Under Policy for UIM Coverage Purposes (Non-Precedential)

In the non-precedential case of Erie Insurance Exchange v. Montesano, No. 262 E.D.A. 2021 (Pa. Super. Feb. 24, 2022 Lazarus, J., Dubow, J., and Pellegrini, J.) (Op. by Lazarus, J.) (Dubow, J, dissenting), the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed a trial court’s decision that a Plaintiff insured met the definition of a “resident” as defined by the insurance company’s policy in this UIM coverage litigation.

According to the Opinion, the Plaintiff’s parents had divorced when the Plaintiff was 2 years of age. It was reported that the Plaintiff resided with her father and her stepmother in their Montgomery County home through the Plaintiff’s birth through her graduation from high school in 2013. At times, the Plaintiff would visit her mother in Florida for one (1) month over the summer and for one (1) week every other Christmas.

At the time of the accident, the Plaintiff’s father and stepmother owned three (3) vehicles, all of which were insured under an Erie Insurance policy. Under that policy, the term “resident” was defined as “a person who physically lives with ‘you’ in ‘your’ household on a regular basis.”

The court also noted that, on August 3, 2013, following an argument with her father and stepmother and without the knowledge of her father and stepmother, the Plaintiff left her father’s home and flew to Florida to stay with her mother. The Plaintiff took some clothing, a couple of shoes, deodorant, a toothbrush, toothpaste and underwear with her on the trip to Florida. It was noted that the Plaintiff did not take her computer or any jewelry and did not make any arrangements to have those items shipped to Florida. The court noted that the Plaintiff retained her key to her stepfather’s home and continued to receive mail there.

The Plaintiff then lived in Florida and slept on her mother’s couch for approximately one (1) month. While the Plaintiff was in Florida, she obtained state-issued driver’s license and registered to vote.

Seeking another change of scenery, the Plaintiff then left her mother’s home in September of 2013 to visit her maternal grandparents in Alabama. While in Alabama, the Plaintiff obtained an Alabama-state-issued driver’s license, transferred her voter’s registration, and purchased a new month-to-month cell phone plan through an Alabama service provider. The Plaintiff also obtained a job obtained a job and had her own bedroom in her grandmother’s house.

In December of 2013, the Plaintiff returned to her father’s house in Pennsylvania but stayed at a hotel. However, the Plaintiff did visit her father’s house for dinner and, at that dinner, reconciled with her dad and her stepmother and told them that she “wanted to come back home.” The Plaintiff decided to take her scheduled flight back to Alabama to retrieve her personal items and then return to her father’s home in Pennsylvania sometime in January.

The Plaintiff then returned to Alabama after her short visit to Pennsylvania. She decided to drive back to Florida with her mother after her mother had visited the grandmother in Alabama for the Christmas holidays.

The Plaintiff then planned to fly home to Pennsylvania from Florida on January 8, 2014. However, on the drive to Florida on January 2, 2014, the Plaintiff sustained injuries in a motor vehicle accident in Florida while a passenger in her mother’s minivan.

Following the accident, the Plaintiff presented a claim for UIM benefits under the Erie Insurance policy that was issued to her father in Pennsylvania.

Erie investigated the claim and ultimately concluded that the Plaintiff did not qualify as a “resident” of her father’s Pennsylvania home because she had not been physically living there on a regular basis at the time of the accident.

After a bench trial held at the trial court level, that court found that, “for all intents and purposes [the Plaintiff’s] true and permanent residence” was her father’s home in Pennsylvania. On appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed in this decision.

After reviewing the law of residency in this context, and applying the particular language of the policy at issue in terms of the definition of a resident, the court focused on the fact that the definition in the Erie policy define resident, in part, as involving a person who resided in the insured’s residence “on a regular basis.”

The appellate court agreed with the trial court’s finding that such a phrase indicates a broader coverage for individuals who, with some regularity, have lived and will live with the insured, even though they may have physically dwelled somewhere else at the time of the accident. As such, the court found that the law does not require that the insured be physically living at the residence of the insured at the time of an accident in order to be covered under an insurance policy.

Here, where at the time of the accident, the Plaintiff was found to have lived with her father and stepmother in Pennsylvania on a regular basis, the Plaintiff qualified as a “resident” as defined under the policy and was, therefore, found to be entitled to the benefit of UIM coverage under the policy at issue.

The Court's Non-Precedential majority Opinion can be viewed at this LINK.

Source of image:  Photo by Alex on Unsplash

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