Saturday, November 10, 2018

Massachusetts Appeals Court holds that child's father is not related by blood to child's mother's parents

Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly quoted me in an article about a recent Massachusetts Appeals Court case, Oliveira v. Commerce Ins. Co., 94 Mass. App. Ct. 276 (2018), which addressed the meaning of "related by blood" in underinsured motorist coverage.  The injured plaintiff had a child with his partner, and the three of them lived with his partner's mother and stepfather.  He sought coverage under an auto policy issued to his partner's mother and stepfather.  The policy included coverage for household members, which it defined as "anyone living in your household who is related to you by blood, marriage or adoption."

In a split decision, the Appeals Court held that the plaintiff was not related by blood to the policyholders.

As I pointed out to Lawyers Weekly, in other policies the phrase might be considered ambiguous and therefore interpreted in favor of coverage.  However, ambiguous terms in auto policies are not interepreted against the insurer because the language of those policies is set by state law.

Underinsured motorist coverage provides the difference in the value of a claim between the coverage limit of the policy of the driver who caused the accident and the coverage limit of the policy of the person who was injured.  In other words, if you are rearended and seriously injured by a driver who has a $20,000 auto policy, and you have $100,000 in underinsurance coverage, you can receive $20,000 from the other driver's policy and up to $80,000 from your own underinsurance coverage.

The dissent argued that the objective of underinsured motorist coverage is to ensure that victims of automobile accidents are adequately compensated for injuries caused by underinsured drivers.  I believe that overstates the purpose of the coverage.  It is certainly true that one purpose of any third-party insurance coverage – coverage for injuries caused by the insured to someone else – is to ensure that victims of the insured are fairly compensated, whoever they may be.  Underinsured motorist coverage is not third-party coverage, however.  It is first-party coverage.  Its purpose is to make sure that an insured who is injured (not who injures someone else) is fairly compensated.  Expanding the definition of who is an insured does not follow from that purpose. 

This brings me to my last point:  Everyone who has an opportunity to do so should purchase uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage.  I’m a strong believer that we all have a duty to have adequate third-party insurance to compensate those who we may harm by our mistakes.  Uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage serves a different purpose:  it prevents us from having to hope that the drunk or texting driver who just rear-ended us purchased enough insurance to compensate us for our injuries. 

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