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7th Circuit Holds Jury had Sufficient Evidence to Find Insured was Resident of House he Owned but Did not Live - Insurance Coverage

Insurance Coverage

Posted on: Mar 7, 2018

By Ian P. Goodman, Cantrell Strenski & Mehringer

Thorne v. Member Select Insurance Company, 2018 WL 822939 (7th Cir. 2018)

A house that the plaintiff owned burned down in a fire. Member Select was the plaintiff’s homeowners insurer. Member Select denied coverage because it determined that the plaintiff or his brother had intentionally set the fire. The plaintiff sued Member Select for breach of contract. The Member Select policy required that the house be the plaintiff’s residence for him to be entitled to coverage. After the presentation of evidence at trial, Member Select moved for judgment as a matter of law on the basis that the jury could not find that the house was the plaintiff’s residence. The district court denied Member Select’s motion, and the jury found that Member Select owed coverage and awarded the plaintiff $87,000.

The 7th Circuit’s opinion, which applied Indiana law, is noteworthy for its discussion of the fact-sensitive inquiry of what constitutes an insured’s residence. The evidence before the jury was summarized as follows:

[Thorne] testified that he intended to live at the Property. He also testified that he kept almost all his personal belongings at the Property, that his mail was delivered there, and that he went there often, even if only to pick up his mail. Furthermore, other than his brother, who had also lived at [the] house, [Thorne] was the only person with keys to the house. All this tends to show, even minimally, that the Property was [Thorne's] “residence” under Indiana law.

There is also significant evidence supporting a finding that the Property was not [Thorne's] residence. Even though it was the middle of winter at the time of the fire, [Thorne] did not know that the Property's gas or electricity had been shut off. [Thorne's] brother rarely saw [Thorne] at the Property, and [Thorne] had been sleeping almost exclusively at his warehouse. In fact, [Thorne] had not been to the Property in over three weeks before the fire.

Additionally, Thorne testified that in the eight months leading up to the fire, he stayed at the house overnight fewer than 20 times. Thorne further testified that he spent minimal time at the house because he worked extensive hours as a millwright and on his side job as a mechanic. He ate out, showered at work, and washed his clothes at a laundromat.

Based on this evidence, the 7th Circuit held that even though the plaintiff spent significant time away from the house, “there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that the house was Throne’s ‘residence’” because “he owned it, had free access to it, and kept personal belongings there.”

The 7th Circuit’s opinion can be found here.

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