The Business Activity Exclusion

What happens if you operate a business – say an auto repair shop – as a means of making a living, and then suffer a fire loss to personal property located in that business? Assume the fire occurs as a result of working on a car in your repair shop, but that at the time of the fire you were not actually engaged in business; rather, you were working on your own car, or perhaps helping a friend to work on her car as a favor. Would the business activities exclusion in your homeowner’s insurance policy preclude you from recovering for the loss of your personal property?

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The rule in Indiana is that “an insured is engaged in a business pursuit only when he pursues a continued or regular activity for the purpose of earning a livelihood. American Family Mutual Ins. Co. v. Bentley, 352 N.E.2d 860, 865 (Ind. Ct. App. 1976) (emphasis added); see also Asbury v. Indiana Union Mut. Ins. Co., 441 N.E.2d 232, 239 (Ind. Ct. App. 1982) (same). Further, “[w]hether an activity is a ‘business’ or property is ‘business property’ under an insurance policy is almost always a factual question presented for determination by the trier of fact or jury.” Id., at 243. The question, then, should turn on what you were doing at the time, and not just on the fact that the loss occurred at your business.

In a 2012 decision the district court for the Northern District of Indiana rejected the argument that personal property that is the same as an insured’s business property automatically means a business exclusion applied to preclude coverage for the loss. In Bachman v. AMCO Insurance Company, 2012 WL 4322746 (N.D.Ind. Sept. 20, 2012), the insured sued AMCO for breach of contract after the insurance company applied a $10,000 limitation in its policy applicable to property located in the residence premises used mainly for “business” purposes. Following a theft, the insured, who sold sports cards out of his home, made a claim under his homeowner’s policy for some $150,000 worth of Fleer basketball cards. The cards had been purchased with money from his business, but the insured considered the particular cards stolen to be his “personal collection”. Id. at *1-2. The insured even admitted that he considered his personal collection to be “investments” that he planned to sell one day when he was “ready to retire.” Id., at *1.

The insurance company argued that the $10,000 business property limitation in its policy applied to the stolen basketball cards and, “[r]elying on excerpts from [the insured’s] examination under oath, . . . contend[ed] that the subject property was business property because it was stored in a manner indistinguishable from the business inventory and was acquired with resources from [the business] with the intention of eventually being sold through the company.” Id., at *5. The insurance company relied on Asbury v. Ind. Union Mut. Ins. Co. (and two other cases) to support its argument. Id.

The district court first noted that the cases relied on by the insurance company (including Asbury) “actually support the denial of summary judgment.” Id. The district court went on to reason as follows:

To the extent that AMCO argues that the Fleer basketball cards automatically fit within the business property limitation at issue simply because Mr. Bachman operated a sports memorabilia business out of his home on a consistent basis at the time of the burglary, the argument cannot result in the granting of summary judgment in AMCO’s favor. No one disputes that Spectator Sportscards, Inc. constituted a “business” and that Mr. Bachman regularly and continually sold sports memorabilia from his home office to third persons for the purpose of earning a livelihood. . . . However, the limitation in AMCO’s policy plainly depends on the use of the property at issue.

Id., at *7 (emphasis in original; internal citation omitted).

Issues like this can arise in many contexts.  The application of exclusions in policies is not necessarily simple or obvious, and sometimes the coverage is actually more broad than it seems.  If you have suffered a loss and are involved in a dispute with your insurance company about what is covered and what is excluded by your policy, whether it is a homeowners policy or a commercial policy, you should contact an attorney with experience reading and interpreting the coverages, conditions, limitations and exclusions. Sometimes the insurance company takes a position that looks correct at first glance, but they may not be looking at the whole picture.

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