Sunday, February 25, 2018

Jury Verdict Finding Named Insured Was Residing in Insured Premises Affirmed

Cotillis v. New York Cent. Mut. Fire Ins. Co.
(3rd Dept., 2/22/2018)

Last month I blogged about a Third Department case in which summary judgment was denied on the issue of the residency requirement of a homeowners insurance policy.  Last week, the Third Department affirmed a jury verdict against a homeowners insurer on the same issue.

In September 2013, a fire damaged plaintiff's two-family house, where plaintiff claimed to lived in the top-floor unit and rent the first-floor unit. NYCM disclaimed coverage on the basis that plaintiff did not reside at the insured premises on the date of loss. Following a trial, the jury found that plaintiff was a resident of the insured premises and awarded damages of $163,938.94 for the dwelling, $7,873,02 for personal property and $39,600 for additional living expenses (loss of rents).  After unsuccessfully moving to set aside the verdict, NYCM appealed.

In AFFIRMING the jury's verdict on the dwelling, the Third Department rejected NYCM's argument that the evidence was legally insufficient for the jury to conclude that plaintiff was a resident of the insured premises at the time of the loss and reiterated the relevant legal principles:
The insurance policy at issue provides coverage to a dwelling on the "residence premises." As relevant here, "residence premises" is defined as "[t]he two, three or four family dwelling where you reside in at least one of the family units." The policy, however, does not define "reside" and, therefore, "[t]he standard for determining residency for purposes of insurance coverage requires something more than temporary or physical presence and requires at least some degree of permanence and intention to remain" (Dean v Tower Ins. Co. of N.Y., 19 NY3d 704, 708 [2012]; see Sosenko v Allstate Ins. Co., 155 AD3d 1482, 1482 [2017]; Fiore v Excelsior Ins., 276 AD2d 895, 896 [2000], lv dismissed [96 NY2d 755 [2001]). Whether a person resides in any particular location is generally a fact-based determination (see Yaniveth R. v LTD Realty Co., 27 NY3d 186, 194 [2016]). 
The Third Department then recapped the trial evidence supporting the jury's residency finding:
At trial, plaintiff's daughter-in-law testified that she and her husband, plaintiff's son, approached plaintiff to see if she could watch their daughter, plaintiff's granddaughter, during the day. The daughter-in-law stated that plaintiff agreed to so "as long as it was temporary." As such, starting in April 2013, plaintiff stayed at her son's house and babysat her granddaughter in the morning. Aside from a bed and a dresser, plaintiff did not bring other household furnishings from the insured premises to her son's house. Approximately two or three times a week, when the daughter-in-law returned early from work, she would take plaintiff to the insured premises where plaintiff would check the mail and perform household chores. Plaintiff testified that she ate meals at the insured premises, stayed at the insured premises during some weekends, did not change her mailing address from the insured premises and planned to return there after her son stopped working. Plaintiff also testified that she considered the insured premises her home. Furthermore, the fire investigator who testified on behalf of defendant stated that his inspection of the unit where plaintiff lived contained items and furnishings indicative of a person living there. In our view, the foregoing proof was sufficient to establish that plaintiff's stay at her son's house was temporary in nature (see New York Cent. Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v Kowalski, 222 AD2d 859, 861 [1995]) and that she was a resident of the insured premises at the time of the loss. 
Homeowners insurers considering denying dwelling coverage based on the named insured's lack of residency would be wise to review what this jury found to be sufficient evidence of such residency:
  • the insured was staying with her son and daughter-in-law temporarily; 
  • she had moved only a bed and dresser to her son's house; all other household furnishings remained behind; 
  • she would return to the dwelling 2-3 times a week to check mail and perform household chores; 
  • she ate some meals at the insured dwelling; 
  • she stayed at the insured dwelling during some weekends; 
  • she had not changed her mailing address; and
  • she considered the insured premises her home.  
NYCM also argued that the amount awarded for the demolition of the insured premises should have been $16,400 and not $28,900, because the latter figure, as testified to by an insurance adjuster, included asbestos control, which NYCM contended was excluded by the policy's pollution exclusion.  That exclusion negated coverage for a loss "caused directly or indirectly" by an ordinance or law requiring an insured "to test for, monitor, clean up, remove, contain, treat, detoxify or neutralize, or in any way respond to, or assess the effects of, pollutants." In rejecting that argument, the Third Department held that "[e]ven assuming that 'pollutants' in the policy at issue encompassed asbestos, the record does not demonstrate that asbestos directly or indirectly caused the loss."

The Third Department did agree, however, with NYCM that the loss of rents award was double what it should have been, modifying the judgment to reduce it by $19,800.  The trial evidence established that plaintiff intended to derive rental income from only the downstairs unit.  Moreover, to the extent that the jury awarded this amount for monies expended by plaintiff for alternative housing, plaintiff failed to establish that she "incurred" any such expenses as required under the policy.

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