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Weitz v. Allstate Ins. Co.

Decided: June 1, 1994.

VARSAVIA WEITZ, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
ALLSTATE INSURANCE COMPANY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Bergen County.

Before Judges R.s. Cohen, D'Annunzio and Wallace.

Cohen

The opinion of the court was delivered by

COHEN, R.S., J.A.D.

Plaintiff Varsavia Weitz filed suit against her husband for bodily injuries allegedly caused by his negligent operation of a motor vehicle. She also sought a declaratory judgment requiring defendant Allstate Insurance Company ("Allstate") to cover her husband under his excess liability ("umbrella") policy for any damages awarded for her injuries in excess of his automobile insurance policy coverage. The Law Division below held that plaintiff could not recover under her husband's excess liability policy. She appealed; we affirm.

Mr. Weitz was the named insured under a personal umbrella policy issued by Allstate.*fn1 Under a section entitled "General Exclusions - when This Policy Does Not Apply" the policy states "this policy will not apply . . . to personal injury to an insured. " (bold in original). In the policy's definition section, "insured" is defined as including "relatives living in your household." (bold in original).

In a letter opinion accompanying the order dismissing plaintiff's complaint against Allstate, the Judge explained:

The terms and conditions are clearly articulated in the personal umbrella policy. The policy is written with many of the terms and topic headings in bold print to accentuate policy exclusions. . . .

It is important to recognize the distinction between an automobile policy [and] an umbrella policy. . . . The former is mandated by and subject to strict statutory regulation. . . . [An] umbrella policy is not subject to such regulation. It is additional coverage not required for the purpose of auto insurance. While it is well established that automobile liability insurance is statutorily required and that any deviation therefrom would be in contravention with the public policy of New Jersey mandating auto insurance. Conversely, umbrella polices are not required. Any additions, exclusions, or other conditions of such policy does not contravene public policy in New Jersey. . . .

Plaintiff contends that an ordinary insured would reasonably assume that the umbrella policy provided coverage against claims arising out of injuries to household members.*fn2 Not so. The policy states that coverage will not extend to a claim for personal injury to "an insured." The policy specifically and clearly defines "an insured" as including members of Mr. Weitz's household. Plaintiff is a member of Mr. Weitz's household. We perceive nothing ambiguous about the policy's exclusion provision. Some authorities say that, if an insurance policy contains no genuine ambiguity, the courts may "not engage in a strained construction to support the imposition of liability," or "write for the insured a better policy of insurance than the one purchased." Longobardi v. Chubb Ins. Co. of New Jersey, 121 N.J. 530, 537, 582 A.2d 1257 (1990). See also, State v. Signo Trading Intern., Inc., 130 N.J. 51, 62, 612 A.2d 932 (1992). Others say that a policy, no matter how clearly worded, will not be interpreted in a way that would disappoint the insured's reasonable expectations. Voorhees v. Preferred Mut. Ins. Co., 128 N.J. 165, 175, 607 A.2d 1255 (1992).

It is not easy to reconcile the two positions. They might agree, however, that satisfying the insured's reasonable expectations does not require a court to follow the notions of the least common insurance customer regarding the contents of an umbrella insurance policy. This is not a policy bought by everyone, like an auto or homeowners' policy. Instead, it provides added areas of insurance for the particularly cautious person. The policy should not be read as simply an endorsement to basic policies to raise their dollar limits. It provides coverages unavailable in auto and homeowners' policies, for example, for defamation, malicious prosecution, false arrest, invasion ...


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