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Insurance Discrimination

Victory for Domestic Abuse Survivors: Women’s Law Project Scores Win in Superior Court (May 1, 2013)

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has affirmed that the General Assembly meant what it clearly stated when it adopted a law in 2006 requiring insurers to pay claims to innocent victims whose homes and automobiles are damaged by the intentional acts of their abusive spouses.  The decision came in a case in which Nationwide Insurance Company had denied an innocent victim’s claim for property damage caused by his estranged wife when she set fire to the family home with herself and both of the couple’s sedated children inside.  The Allegheny County trial court ruled in favor of the insurer, misinterpreting the statutory provision and nullifying the promise of the General Assembly’s 2006 enactment.  The Superior Court reversed, finding the trial court’s interpretation of the law flawed based on its thorough review of the history, plain language, and legislative intent of a provision of law that the Court itself had called upon the General Assembly to enact in a 1997 opinion.  In reaching its decision, the court noted that it reviewed and considered the brief of the Women’s Law Project, which represented Amici Curiae, including itself, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and 24 organizations providing services to domestic violence victims in Pennsylvania.  The court issued its 25 page opinion in Lynn v. Nationwide Insurance Company on May 1, less than one month following oral argument, vindicating the advocacy of the many organizations who had worked for many years to rectify the injustice resulting from insurance practices which victimized the victim.  See Court Opinion and Amicus Brief filed with the court.

Insurance Discrimination Work

The Women’s Law Project has confronted gender discrimination in the insurance industry for more than twenty years. In its first effort in 1988, WLP partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union to eliminate use of gender in setting Pennsylvania insurance rates. Bartholomew v. Grode yielded a major victory in the area of auto insurance, leading the State Insurance Commissioner to ban gender-based rates in all forms of insurance.

In 1993, after the WLP discovered that insurance companies were discriminating against domestic violence victims, attorneys filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Insurance Department and spearheaded legislative efforts throughout the country at both state and federal levels to assure victims’ access to insurance. WLP managing attorney Terry Fromson became a consumer representative to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and helped draft model laws in each affected area of insurance coverage. At the request of the U.S.Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women, the WLP authored a report to Congress on insurance discrimination against domestic violence victims. To date, forty-three states have adopted laws banning insurers from denying, canceling, or rating insurance and denying claims on the basis of domestic violence. The WLP provided technical assistance to state commissioners, legislators and advocates in most of these states. Protection has been included in several bills adopted by Congress, which the WLP assisted in drafting.

Legislative Accomplishment

The WLP and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence were instrumental in ensuring the passage of Pennsylvania House Bill 1632 (see Act 78 of 2006) amending the Unfair Insurance Practices Act to close a gap in the protection it provides. The act prohibits denying property and casualty claims to one spouse based on the intentional act of the other spouse – capturing a devastating aspect of abuse through property destruction. The bill was signed into law by Governor Rendell on July 7, 2006.

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