Mendota Insurance v. Gallegos (CA1 5/7/13)

This case tells us what a “household” is.

UIM applies to relatives residing in the insured’s household. Eric Gallegos lived with his parents. Eric’s brother Martin used to, until he rented a house (because his parents’ home unduly restricted his “partying”). But he spent most of his days and nights at his girlfriend’s apartment; she didn’t consider that he was living with her, though, because he didn’t pay any of the bills. He had a meal at his parents’ house on weekends, got his mail there, and “did laundry” there (that’s what the opinion says; we wonder how likely it is that this young hustler did his own laundry). But he “intended to move back in  with his parents . . . whenever he was done partying.” Along the line Martin bought car insurance; he listed his parents’ house as his residence.

Eric was then injured while riding in a friends’ car and made a UIM claim against Martin’s policy. Mendota sued for declaratory judgment to establish that Eric was not a resident of Martin’s household, i.e., that Martin didn’t really live at the parents’ house.

The trial court ruled for Eric. Mendota appealed.

“Mendota’s argument,” the Court of Appeals tells us, “focuses solely on the physical presence aspect of a  household.” But the “existence of a household” is demonstrated by “the totality of the circumstances.” A household has three aspects: “a close-knit group of individuals who treat each other like family, and deal with each other intimately and informally,” “a connection to a shared dwelling place where its members develop and maintain their close-knit, intimate, and informal relationships,” and “a degree of permanency and intention to integrate into the family unit and remain a member for more than a mere transitory period.” “Determining where an insured ’s household is thus requires an objective evaluation of the totality of the relationships between or among the individuals, their connection to a shared dwelling where they have developed and maintained those relationships, and the permanency and integration of the individuals into a family unit.”

In addition, “a court may consider the extent and quality of the individuals’ shared experiences, the level of emotional and financial commitment, the particulars of their day-to-day interactions, how they relate to each other and conduct themselves , and the reliance they place on each other for family services.”

And so, of course, the court affirms. And, of course, it blames its result on the policy, which “did not do a very good job of capturing the real world.”

In passing the court mentions, in one sentence, that “from time to time, Martin gave Eric rides because Eric did not have a car.” Was the court’s intention to show that Eric was therefore within the scope of the risks reasonably foreseen by the parties and charged for by the insurer? It doesn’t seem to have entertained such a novel concept. It also doesn’t bother much to talk in terms of plain or commonly-accepted meanings of “household” objectively held by average people entering into contracts, which used to be what contract cases were about back in the days before we all got so enlightened and sophisticated   It doesn’t even seem to place much emphasis on the fact that Martin gave Mendota his parents’ address. Pretty clearly, it’s intention – and achievement – was to write the word “household” out of auto policies and replace it with “it takes a village.”

(link to opinion)