In January of 2003, Patricia and Harry Hall wanted to replace their existing homeowner's insurance policy. They went to Terry Brennan of the Burt Insurance Agency and asked for his help. They told him they wanted a policy that would cover earthquakes, their animals, and their wood-burning stove.
Brennan advised the Halls they could get homeowner's insurance through the Buckeye State Mutual Insurance Company. On 1-9-03, Brennan came to their farm to take photos and measurements and to bring the Halls the insurance application he had filled out for them.
The Halls and Brennan had different versions of what happened during Brennan's farm visit. According to the Halls, Patricia told Brennan during his visit that they kept animals in the house, their barn, and their pasture. When Brennan asked whether the Halls owned any vicious animals, Patricia truthfully told him they did not. None of their animals had any history of attacking humans.
At the time, the Halls owned six dogs, including a 90-pound Doberman Pinscher named Zip. As the dogs tended to bark when anyone drove up to the house, Patricia couldn't imagine how Brennan could have not known of their presence.
Brennan's version of the visit differed significantly from the Halls' story. According to Brennan, Patricia never told him she owned dogs, and, in fact, she intentionally concealed her dog ownership.
Regardless of whose version of the visit was accurate, no one later disputed that Brennan checked off the box on the insurance application that stated there were no dogs on the premises. Patricia signed the application without having read all of it. She later said she had felt rushed at the time and had simply done what Brennan told her to do.
The application stated in part "I have read the above application and any attachments. I declare that the information provided in them is true, complete and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief." Buckeye subsequently issued the policy, which the Halls renewed on 1-10-04. The Halls paid all of their premiums.
In August of 2004, Zip the Doberman Pinscher bit the Halls' niece, Brieanna, who was visiting their house. This tragic incident set off the Halls' subsequent insurance problems. When the Halls informed Buckeye of the incident, Buckeye denied coverage on the ground that the Halls had falsified their insurance application.
The Halls then filed suit against Brennan and Burt Insurance Agency and blamed them for failing to procure an enforceable policy and erroneously stating that no animals were on the premises. They sought indemnity from defendants for defense costs and any liability that they might incur from an action by Brieanna against them. Plaintiffs also believed they were entitled to damages in the amount of their premiums. The Halls' theories included breach of fiduciary duty and constructive fraud.
Defendants responded by insisting any misrepresentations on the Halls' insurance application were the Halls' fault, not theirs. They believed Patricia Hall had hidden the existence of the dogs from Brennan. Furthermore, defendants pointed out, it had been the Halls' responsibility to correct any incorrect information on the application.
After a two-day trial, a Valparaiso jury took just twenty minutes to decide in favor of the Halls on the issue of liability. Because the issues regarding Brieanna's dog bite had not yet been resolved, damages were not fixed. The court entered a consistent judgment. Defendants appealed, but the court of appeals affirmed.
The case(s) cited herein was(were) reprinted with the permission of the publisher Jury Verdict Review Publications, Inc. www.jvra.com
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