Does My Automobile Insurance Cover My Child Away at College?

IMG_4391-200x300by HWC Partner Michael Eldridge

Every fall, parents across Alabama celebrate the significant milestone of sending their children off to college. While our attention naturally gravitates toward matters like lodging, tuition, and class schedules, we may also ponder whether our insurance policies continue to provide coverage for our children now that they are adults and out of the house. Consider this scenario: Your child is away at college and is involved in a car accident. Perhaps they are at fault and injure someone else, or worse, they themselves are injured by another driver. In such situations, what are the implications for the parents’ insurance coverage as is it relates to covering a child away at school?

For decades, Alabama courts have ruled on insurance disputes related to scenarios precisely like this one. The central point of contention between insurance companies and their insureds revolves around the term “residence.” Specifically, what qualifies as an individual’s place of residence while away at school? The crux of this question is significantly important because insurance contracts typically extend coverage to both the named insureds (i.e. the parents) and “relatives of the named insured if they are residents of the same household.”

As it relates to this idea of one’s residence, Alabama law is clear that a person only has one primary residence at any given time. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Brown, 26 So. 3d 1167 (Ala. 2009). Furthermore, Alabama statutory law defines an adult as, “[a]ny person in this state, at the arrival at 19 years…” ALA CODE § 26-1-1. A simplistic view, and one that insurers have consistently argued, is that an adult who primarily resides elsewhere, away from their parent’s home, is no longer considered a resident of their parent’s household for the purposes of insurance coverage. When it comes to the term “residence” in insurance contracts, however, the Supreme Court of Alabama diverges from the myopic and narrow approach taken by insurance companies.

AdobeStock_141884883-300x200Alabama courts have consistently maintained that when it comes to extending coverage to additional insureds—such as liability coverage and uninsured motorist coverage—the term “residence” is ambiguous, and includes a very temporary, as well as permanent abode. Crossett v. St. Louis Fire & Marine Ins. Co. 269 So. 2d Ala. 589 (Ala. 1972). Furthermore, the well-settled rule in Alabama is that when an insurance policy provision, like the term “residence,” is susceptible to multiple interpretations, the court will adopt the interpretation which is favorable to the insured. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Hanna, 166 So. 2d 872 (Ala. 1964).

One of the earliest cases addressing the issue of the term “residence” and an adult child living away at school occurred in Crossett v. St.Louis Fire & Marine Ins. Co. In Crossett, an Auburn University student was sued by his roommate for injuries allegedly caused during an altercation in their dorm room. After a lawsuit was filed against the student, the parents’ insurer contended it was not obligated to defend or provide liability coverage to its insureds’ son under the policy. The basis of the insurer’s contention, and the sole issue in the case, centered on whether the student was a resident of the parents’ household while he was away at school.

In ruling against the insurer, the Supreme Court of Alabama held that, despite being away and living at college, the son remains a resident of his parents’ household for purposes of insurance coverage. In addressing the insurers contention, that the term “residence” is fixed to where someone physically resides, the Crossett court held,

“A resident of a household is one who is a member of a family who live under the same roof. Residence emphasizes membership in a group rather than an attachment to a building. It is a matter of intention and choice rather than one of geography.”

Since Crossett, Alabama courts have continued to confront cases in which insurers deny coverage to their insured’s children based on the individual’s resident status at college at the time of an incident. See, Bayles v. Southern Guaranty Ins. Co., 484 So. 2d 1065 (Ala. 1986). When it comes to disputes related to extending liability coverage or uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, Alabama courts emphasize that the term “residence” encompasses more than just where an individual primarily sleeps. Specifically, in situations in which an insured’s child, who previously resided at the insured’s home, is away at school, the child continues to be considered a resident of their family’s household until the facts and circumstances demonstrate a clear severance of ties with their parents.

AdobeStock_187427870-300x200Factors for determining whether there is a severance of ties could include whether the child (1) is financially dependent on the parents, in whole or in part, (2) has a bedroom at the parents’ home, (3) receives mail at the parents’ house, (4) keeps clothes and belongings at the parents’ home, (5) lists the parents’ home on their driver’s license and/or (6) returns to the parents’ home on weekends and holidays. The Alabama courts make clear that it is essential to consider the broader context of all of these factors beyond where your child primarily lays their head at night when off at school when determining resident status for the purpose of extending insurance coverage.

Hollis, Wright & Clay, P.C. has represented numerous teenagers who were injured in an accident while off at college. It is imperative that injured teenagers, and more importantly their parents, understand that the analysis of whether a child is covered on a homeowner’s or automobile insurance policy can be complex and requires the attention of experienced personal injury attorneys. You can reach our Alabama personal injury attorneys online here or at 844.LAW.TALK or 205.324.3600.


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