It’s all relative: Illinois appellate court finds the term “relative by marriage” ambiguous
The Illinois Appellate Court recently held that a former stepson remained a “relative by marriage” within meaning of his former stepmother’s auto policies, such that he may be entitled to uninsured motorist and medical payments coverage under the policies.
The Court’s Decision
In State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Bierman, Blake Miller (the “decedent”) died as a result of injuries he sustained while he was a passenger in an uninsured vehicle involved in a one-vehicle collision. 2019 IL App (5th) 180426, ¶3. On the date of the accident, the decedent had been living rent-free with his former stepmother, the Named Insured on the auto Policies issued by State Farm, for six months. Id. The decedent’s father was previously married to the Named Insured from 1993 until 2003, when they divorced. Id. The decedent’s father continued to reside periodically with the Named Insured post-divorce until his death in 2009. Id.
State Farm issued three auto policies to the Named Insured that were in effect on the date of the accident (the “Policies”). Id. at ¶4. All three Policies provided uninsured motorist coverage and two of the Policies provided medical payments coverage to “resident relatives” of the Named Insured. Id. at ¶¶4-5. “Resident relative” was defined, in relevant part, as “a person, other than you, who resides primarily with the . . . named insured . . . and who is . . . related to that named insured or his or her spouse by blood, marriage, or adoption.” Id. at ¶5.
The decedent’s estate asserted a claim for uninsured motorist coverage and medical payments coverage under the Policies. Id. at ¶6. In response, State Farm brought a declaratory judgment action against the estate, seeking a declaration that the decedent was not entitled to coverage since he was not a “resident relative” under the Policies. Id. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of State Farm, finding that the facts were conflicting as to whether the decedent resided with the Named Insured at the time of the accident and finding that no de facto relationship existed between the decedent and the Named Insured. Id. at ¶11.
The appellate court reversed. Id. at ¶32. The appellate court first held that the Policies’ “related by marriage” provision was ambiguous as it was subject to more than one reasonable construction and, therefore, should be construed in favor of coverage for the decedent’s injuries. Id. at ¶27. The appellate court stated, “[o]n the one hand, we consider as reasonable, as have other courts, the interpretation that the term “related by marriage” encompasses a stepparent relationship even absent the biological parent.” Id. at ¶25. The court further stated, “[o]n the other hand, we also find reasonable the interpretation that the divorce or death of a spouse terminates a marriage and, thus, the surviving spouse is no longer “related by marriage” to the other spouse’s children, i.e., the legal relationship formed as a result of marriage terminates on divorce or death of a spouse.” Id. at ¶26.
The appellate court then agreed with the trial court’s finding that a genuine issue of material fact existed regarding whether the decedent resided primarily with the Named Insured on the date of the accident. Id. at ¶29. After noting the conflicting evidence regarding where the decedent primarily resided, the appellate court concluded that the genuine issue of material fact rendered summary judgment inappropriate and that it should instead be decided by the trier of fact. Id. at ¶30. Accordingly, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s order entering summary judgment in State Farm’s favor and remanded the cause for the trial court to hear evidence regarding the decedent’s primary residence. Id.
The decision in Bierman is significant in that it establishes Illinois’ application of the “related by marriage” provision in light of various other states’ conflicting interpretations. By holding that the provision is ambiguous and applying it against the insurer, the appellate court is effectively expanding the coverage afforded under the uninsured motorist and medical payments coverage parts to individuals who may no longer have any legal relationship with the named insured.