Vacancy Clause In Homeowners Policy

Property owners in Grand Prairie, Arlington, Pantego, Dalworthington Gardens, Crowley, Burleson, Lake Worth, Fort Worth, Weatherford, and other places in Texas who own homes and other building should know about the “vancancy clause” in their insurance policy.
Here is a 1969, case dealing with the vacancy clause in a homeowners insurance policy. It was decided by the Houston Court of Appeals and is styled, John J. Knoff et al. v. United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co.
Here are some facts of the case. Knoff and others sued United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co. (Fidelity) for money under a fire insurance policy. The policy excluded coverage when the house had been vacant beyond a period of thirty consecutive days. A fire occurred May 19, 1966, destroying the home. Here is some of the trial testimony.
Mrs. Segal, a daughter of Mrs. Laughlin, the original owner of the house, lived with her mother for many years at the insured home. She was living there when her mother died in November, 1963. Her testimony is not entirely clear as to all specific dates with regard to her relationship to the property after her mother’s death. She testified that after her mother’s death she lived there over a year. She was asked by her counsel, “Now you were not living there at the time this alleged fire occurred, were you?” She answered, “No sir. I was in the process of moving over to my sister’s house.” Her sister, to whom she referred, was Mrs. Simmons who died May 1, 1965. She stated she left the home after Mrs. Simmons died. When asked how long prior to the fire it was since she lived at her mother’s house, she answered, “Well, I really hadn’t moved out altogether.” She stated she was in the process of moving over a period of months because she had to do all the moving herself. When asked on cross examination whether she had been to the house since she moved out in 1964, she stated she was over there nearly every week. When asked if she had lived there since 1964 when she moved out, she answered, “Oh, I have spent many a night over there.” She made her sister’s home hers after her sister died. She didn’t remember when they put the house up for sale because she wasn’t good at remembering dates. They put it up for sale after she was in the process of moving out. She had no intention of going back and that is the reason they put it up for sale.
She listed the contents of the house as two tables and a desk in the living room. She said there were two beds upstairs. There was a small table in the kitchen. In one bedroom was a rug and chair. In another room was an end of a bed. There were draperies and lots of clothes that she did not intend to take with her. There was another bed and two mattresses. An upstairs apartment had a table and four chairs.
An insurance company investigator took pictures showing a stove and a Frigidaire, and a gas range.
In this case the trial judge ruled that as a matter of law the house was vacant and would not let the issue of whether or not the house was vacant per the insurance contract go to the jury. He based this on the part of the policy that said:
Unless otherwise provided in writing added hereto, this Company shall not be liable for loss occurring ….:
(b) while a described building, whether intended for occupancy by owner or tenant, is vacant beyond a period of thirty consecutive days; ….
This appeals court stated, “It will be noted that the term ‘unoccupied’ is not used but only the term ‘vacant’. The terms are not synonymous. The term vacant means ‘entire abandonment, deprived of contents, empty.'”
This court then discussed what other courts in Texas and other states have interpreted these insurance clauses to mean. In so doing, this court ruled that the trial judge was in error to rule that as “a matter of law” the house was vacant. This court was of the opinion that the trial judge should have let the jury determine whether or not the evidence was sufficient for them to decide the issue.
An insurance company will always conduct an investigation. They immediately start taking statements from the owners and neighbors when a house is vandalized or burned. They are looking for reasons that may justifiy a denial of policy benefits. This is just another reason to get an experienced Insurance Law Attorney involved early when an insurance claim needs to be made.