Insurance suit goes before high court

By Michele C. Hladik

The lawsuit was filed eight years ago in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court.

COLUMBUS — A Trumbull County woman injured in a car accident while her husband was driving is not entitled to paid medical benefits from the automobile insurer, an attorney told the Ohio Supreme Court.

Judge Streb, who represented Motorists Mutual Insurance Co., said Elizabeth Burnett, 84, was not entitled to compensation for injuries caused by the accident because it was caused by her husband, Albert.

Burnett filed a lawsuit against the insurance company for the 2000 accident. The Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas found in favor of the company. The Burnetts then took the matter to the 11th District Court of Appeals.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision and found in favor of Burnett. The matter was then brought before the Ohio Supreme Court, which recently heard arguments in the case. The top court has not said when it will rule on the matter.

“Mrs. Burnett was injured in a motor vehicle accident caused by the negligence of her husband,” Streb said.

The February 2000 accident occurred on state Route 7 in Brookfield Township. Mrs. Burnett, 76 at the time, was a passenger in the car driven by her husband.

Burnett said she was surprised when she learned her injuries were not covered. She said she and her husband were paying a lot of money for the insurance, and they’d been with the company since 1972.

“We thought I was covered,” she said. “It was a shock. It was unbelievable. We’d been with the company a long time.”

She acknowledged she and her husband are still with the insurance company, but have increased their coverage.

She suffered a crushed pelvis, seven broken ribs and a broken clavicle.

Streb said Mrs. Burnett was denied coverage based on an interfamily exclusion clause in her policy.

Justice Paul Pfeifer questioned the reasoning for such clauses.

“So you actually believe that people would go out and get themselves in car wrecks, risking injury to him or herself, so that a family member living in their household could collect a fraudulent claim?” Justice Pfeifer said. “Do you really believe that?”

Streb, of North Canton, said he does believe it is possible.

“I think it does happen,” he said. “I believe it has happened.”

He said Ohio law states that whether there is evidence that kind of thing happens is irrelevant.

Justice Pfeifer questioned him further on the issue.

“As a result of that unproven fear of fraud …, it’s OK to have policies that leave the people that are most dear to us uncovered?” he asked. “That’s the way your client’s policy works. ... You can protect everyone but those most dear to you? And that’s a rational distinction.”

Streb said yes it was rational. “That is what the policy states,” he said.

Streb also said state laws regarding uninsured and underinsured people are specifically defined.

Burnett was represented before the high court by Youngstown attorney Robert Vizmeg. Vizmeg argued the policy created an illogical classification of accident victim.

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