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Lehrhoff v. Aetna Cas. and Sur. Co.

Decided: March 14, 1994.

STEVEN LEHRHOFF AND ARTHUR H. LEHRHOFF, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
THE AETNA CASUALTY AND SURETY COMPANY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Essex County.

Pressler, Dreier and Kleiner. The opinion of the court was delivered by Pressler, P.J.A.D.

Pressler

This is an appeal from a summary judgment dismissing a complaint seeking uninsured motorist coverage (UM) under a standard automobile policy. It requires us to consider the question of whether the reasonable expectations of the insured raised by the declarations page of the policy may be defeated by express policy provisions to the contrary. Under the circumstances here, we hold that the policy's fine print qualification of the definition of persons entitled to UM coverage was insufficient to overcome the reasonable expectation of coverage raised by the declaration page and by the express terms of the UM coverage itself.

Defendant Aetna Casualty and Surety Company issued a standard automobile policy to plaintiff Arthur H. Lehrhoff which included uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage. Plaintiff Steven Lehrhoff, an adult son of the insured, was named on the declarations page of the policy as a regular driver of the insured vehicle along with his father, his mother, and his younger brother. During the policy period, Steven Lehrhoff, while a pedestrian, was injured in California in a traffic accident he attributed to the fault of an unidentified motorist. He claimed UM benefits under the policy. Aetna rejected the claim on the ground that Steven was no longer a resident of his father's household when the injuries were sustained. Father and son consequently commenced this

action against Aetna seeking a declaration of Steven's right to UM coverage. The motion Judge entered summary judgment dismissing the complaint having concluded that Steven's residence in his father's household had in fact terminated by the date of the accident. Plaintiffs appeal. We reverse because we are satisfied that under the circumstances here, Steven, as a named driver, was entitled to UM coverage whether or not he was then a member of his father's household.

The Lehrhoff family resides in Short Hills, New Jersey. After his graduation from high school in 1986, Steven attended college in Illinois, coming home during school holidays. Following his college graduation in June 1990, he returned home for several weeks, travelled abroad for several weeks, and spent the rest of the summer in Short Hills. His plan was to apply for law school admission in the fall of 1991, and in order to explore the possibilities of a legal career had decided to work in a law-related job for a year. He went to Los Angeles, California, with a group of college friends in September 1990 and obtained employment as a legal assistant in a law firm for an initial ninety-day probationary period. Although he asserts that he regarded his California residence as temporary, that he intended to return to New Jersey after his California adventure and that he had continued to maintain significant ties with his New Jersey home, he did obtain a California drivers license in late September 1990, presumably, however, retaining his New Jersey license. The automobile he had with him was, however, a family automobile, owned by his father, registered in New Jersey, and insured by Aetna under the New Jersey policy here in question. It was the only vehicle covered by the policy.

The accident occurred on October 25, 1990, about half-way through Steven's probationary period. He was struck by a bicycle while crossing the street and claimed that the bicyclist had been forced into his path by an unidentified automobile. Steven's injuries were serious and he was hospitalized for a period of time.

The automobile policy whose terms we must construe was issued for a six-month period commencing June 1, 1990, before Steven went to California. The declaration page of the policy identified Arthur Lehrhoff as the insured. It contained the customary information respecting the included coverages and their amount,*fn1 the premiums charged for each, identification of applicable endorsements specifically including personal injury protection (PIP), and identification of the automobile. In the box designated "Driver Information," the four members of the family were named together with their dates of birth and their respective intended percentage of use of the vehicle, Steven's being listed as thirty-five percent. No information respecting the address of a listed driver or the driver's relationship to the named insured was either requested or supplied.

The policy itself is the usual multi-page document with a variety of sections describing, defining, and limiting each of the coverages. The UM coverage section starts at the bottom of page six and is encaptioned "Part C -- Uninsured Motorist Coverage." The policy also has a page entitled "Amendment of Personal Auto Policy-New Jersey." The subject of the amendment is not noted in the title but the text informs the insured that "Part C of your policy is replaced by the following:" Then follows a revised Part C. Only a determined, persistent and experienced reader knowing precisely what information he is seeking would be able even to find the applicable sections of the policy.

The UM coverage itself undertakes to pay damages which a "covered person" is entitled to recover from the owner of an uninsured automobile, defined to include the so-called phantom vehicle. "Covered person" is defined for purposes of the UM coverage as:

1. You or any family member.


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