The Ohio Supreme Court often decides cases that are unusual.
And the justices recently heard one that falls into that category. The case revolves around the specific definitions of two critical words. Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler reports.
The first important word in this case is “intent”. The case started in 2010, when Steve Granger and Paul Steigerwald of Akron told Valerie Kozera they wouldn’t rent their property to her because she had a child. The woman called fair housing investigators, and the men were sued in federal court. The men said they didn’t know they were breaking a law, and turned for help to Auto-Owners Insurance, from which they’d bought an umbrella insurance policy. Auto-Owners declined to defend them, saying the umbrella policy doesn’t cover clients who break laws – whether intentional or not. The men sued the insurance company for breach of contract. Brian Winchester argued for the insurance company.
“The level of intent – ignorance of the law is no defense, as we know. And his mere statement and his intent to preclude Ms. Kozera from living or renting that property was the intentional act. The harm automatically occurs based on the violation of the Fair Housing Act.”
Thomas Loepp is the attorney for Granger and Steigerwald, the landlords.
“I understand ignorance is not a defense in the law, blah blah blah. And it was not a defense to Ms. Kozera’s claims. He thought, since I don’t have a certain number of units, I don’t have to do, I don’t have to follow all of the law’s such and such. He thought he did not have to rent to people with children.”
And then there’s the second word – “humiliation”. In her suit, Kozera claimed she suffered emotional distress because of the humiliation of being discriminated against, and the landlords say their umbrella policy allows for humiliation in its coverage of personal injury claims. Winchester, arguing for the insurance company, told the justices that’s not correct.
“The umbrella policy provides coverage for personal injury – however, in limited circumstances. The Court of Appeals found that emotional distress equals humiliation - humiliation being a covered personal injury under the umbrella policy. These are separate and distinct items.”
But Loepp said the language in the policy defines humiliation as something that wouldn’t be covered, it should be, because precedent supports siding with the insured in cases like this.
“So it’s either that they took money from my clients for something – humiliation coverage, humiliation duty of defense – or they took money from him without providing him something. Well, the law is that if they took his money, if they sold him insurance, if they provided it to him and they defined it, I’m sorry, they gave them something, he bought something. He bought humiliation coverage.”
And the discussion over how important the definitions of these words are included a lighter moment – this exchange between Justice Terrance O’Donnell and Winchester.
O’Donnell: “What is humiliation, in your view?”
Winchester: “Well, being asked a question by a Justice of the Supreme Court and not knowing the answer.”
The landlords settled the suit with Kozera and fair housing advocates after the insurance company refused to defend them, and before filing suit against the insurer. A decision from the Ohio Supreme Court is expected in the next few months.