Couple loses family coverage case

By Michele C. Hladik

State law once allowed insurance companies to exclude family members from medical coverage.

COLUMBUS — A Trumbull County woman’s rights to equal protection were not violated when she was denied coverage in an accident caused by her husband, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled.

The case involved Albert and Elizabeth Burnett, who were in a car accident in Brookfield Township in 2000. She suffered several injuries.

In a 6-1 decision handed down Tuesday, the high court said state law at the time of the accident did not create an arbitrary and illogical classification in allowing an insurance company to exclude Mrs. Burnett from medical coverage as a family member.

The decision overturned a ruling of the 11th District Court of Appeals and remanded the case back to the appellate court for further review of issues not answered in that court’s decision.

“The application of former [state statute] does not violate the equal protection clauses of the Ohio and United States constitutions and does not create an arbitrary and illogical classification based on household status that has a disparate and unfair effect by precluding coverage for injured persons who may not recover solely because they are related to and live in the household of the insured,” wrote Justice Maureen O’Connor in the majority opinion.

Mrs. Burnett suffered a crushed pelvis, seven broken ribs and broken clavicle in the February 2000 car accident on state Route 7 in Brookfield Township. She was the passenger in the car driven by her husband and denied medical coverage by her insurance company, Motorists Mutual Insurance Co., based on an interfamily exclusion clause in her policy.

She filed a lawsuit against the insurance company in 2001. The Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas found in favor of the company and she took the matter to the appellate court.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision and found in favor of Mrs. Burnett. The matter was then brought before the Ohio Supreme Court.

Justice Paul Pfeiffer cast the lone dissenting vote.

“The good news is that the damage done by [that statute] was limited, the statute having been repealed after three years,” Justice Pfeifer wrote.

“The bad news is that this court finds nothing constitutionally offensive about that short-lived statute’s unequal treatment of Ohioans. Thus, the repeal of [the statute] did not come soon enough for Elizabeth Burnett. She is left to suffer the consequences of the General Assembly’s dark view of the citizens of Ohio as persons who willingly injure family members by purposely causing automobile accidents in order to collect insurance payouts.”

He said there is no “rational basis” for the General Assembly excluding people based on their relationship as family members.

“It is the very people [the former statute] excludes from coverage that insurance purchasers believe they are paying to protect,” Justice Pfeifer wrote.

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