Why the “Worst Aunt Ever” Sued Her 12-Year-Old Nephew
By Brette Sember
Would you sue your 12-year-old nephew for mistakenly breaking your arm? That’s what Jennifer Connell did, and the media went crazy, calling her the “worst aunt ever.” Behind the furor lie some surprising truths about homeowners insurance and how claims work.
Why did Connell sue her nephew?
Connell’s case provoked outrage on social media, but the truth has been obscured behind the vitriol. Here’s what actually happened: When Connell’s nephew Sean was eight years old, he excitedly greeted her at his birthday party, knocking both of them down. In the process, Connell’s wrist was fractured, requiring surgical repair.
Connell says she needed help with associated medical bills. Her lawyers advised her that Sean’s parents’ homeowners insurance policy covered her injury and recommended she sue for $ 127,000 to cover medical expenses and related costs.
But here’s the rub: the only way to sue the insurance company for the claim was to name the person responsible for the injury – little Sean – as the defendant.
Connell’s bid to get reimbursed didn’t work. The jury found against her after deliberating for only 25 minutes.
Despite this outcome, her situation provides a glimpse into how homeowners insurance works.
Why is homeowners insurance responsible for injuries?
Most people know that homeowners insurance covers home damage caused by disasters like fires, toppled trees or burst pipes. But it also protects homeowners against theft and, as in the “mean aunt” case, from being held liable for injuries they are responsible for or that happen on their property.
How does it work?
Homeowners insurance for liability breaks down into two parts. Personal liability covers costs associated with personal injury or property damage that occurs on your property and is caused by you. The italicized part is important – the injury or damage must be caused by you or your negligence, i.e., your failure to do something a reasonable person would have done.
Let’s say you neglect to clear your driveway after an ice storm. Someone then slips and falls on it and sues you (and names you, since it’s your fault). The personal liability part of your insurance policy covers the injured person’s medical payments, as well as the cost of the lawsuit (the attorney’s bills) and any judgment against you for pain and suffering.
Most policies provide coverage up to $ 100,000 for each occurrence. So if, for example, two people fall on two days in a row, it covers both injured individuals up to $ 100,000. There is generally no deductible for this part of your insurance.
If you want coverage for a higher amount, you can take out what is called an umbrella policy, which provides higher limits and wider coverage. To receive reimbursement through your policy, the injured person has to sue you, not the insurance company.
This explains why Connell filed a suit naming her nephew as the defendant. Her suit claimed that he caused the injury by greeting her so exuberantly. The only way to get the insurance company to pay was to sue him, the person who fractured her wrist.
Your policy has a separate section that covers medical payments for injuries that happen on your property that you did not cause. If, for example, someone climbs on top of your garage in the middle of the night, jumps off and breaks a leg, this part of your policy covers medical costs up to the limits set by your policy.
Note that your homeowners insurance policy does not cover injuries to you or the members of your family that live with you. So, if your 13-year-old son slips on your driveway and breaks a leg, the injury is not covered.
So Connell isn’t so bad after all?
Nope. In fact, legal experts say what she did made complete sense. University of Pennsylvania law professor Tom Baker says, “One of the main things that predicts whether someone brings a lawsuit is whether they have medical needs that are not met by their health insurance. When I hear about [this case], I don’t think ‘That terrible greedy aunt.’ I think, ‘She probably didn’t get all her health expenses paid.’ You might say that’s the real problem.”
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Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.
Brette Sember is a former attorney and author of more than 40 books, including The Divorce Organizer & Planner, The Complete Divorce, How to Parent with Your Ex, The Essential Supervisor’s Handbook, The Complete Credit Repair Kit, The Original Muffin Tin Cookbook, and The Gluten-Free Guide to Travel. She writes often about law, parenting, food, travel, health, and more. She blogs at PuttingItAllOnTheTable.com.