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Thorne v. Member Select Insurance Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

February 12, 2018

David Thorne, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Member Select Insurance Company, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued Decembers, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division. No. 09 C 87 - John E. Martin, Magistrate Judge.

          Before Kanne, and ROVNER, Circuit Judges, and Durkin, District Judge. [*]

          Durkin, District Judge.

         David Thorne has a property insurance policy with Member Select Insurance Company. Thorne brought suit against Member Select when it denied his claim for coverage after his house burned down. A jury awarded Thorne $87, 000, and the district court denied Member Select's motion for judgment as a matter of law. Member Select appeals from that order.

         I. Background

         Thome's house at 726 Arbogast Street in Griffith, Indiana, burned down completely in February 2008. Thorne chose not to rebuild the house. Member Select refused to cover the loss because it determined that either Thorne or his brother (who was living in the house and was the only person besides Thorne who had a key) intentionally set the fire.

         After the jury's verdict in Thome's favor, Member Select moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50. Member Select argued: (1) there was insufficient evidence for the jury to find that Thorne was a resident of the house (as required for recovery under the policy); and (2) there was insufficient evidence for the jury to determine damages. Member Select appeals from the district court's post-trial decision in Thome's favor on those two issues. Member Select also argues that the district court misinterpreted the policy's loss coverage provision in evaluating whether the evidence was sufficient to support the jury's damages award.

         II. Standard of Review

         We review a district court's refusal to grant a Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law de novo. See Empress Casino Joliet Corp. v. Balmoral Racing Club, Inc., 831 F.3d 815, 822 (7th Cir. 2016). "Judgment as a matter of law is proper 'if a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue.'" Lawson v. Sun Microsystems, Inc., 791 F.3d 754, 761 (7th Cir. 2015) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1)). "We construe the trial evidence 'strictly in favor of the party who prevailed before the jury.'" Empress Casino, 831 F.3d at 822 (quoting Passananti v. Cook County, 689 F.3d 655, 659 (7th Cir. 2012)). "Although we must determine that more than 'a mere scintilla of evidence' supports the verdict, we do not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." May v. Chrysler Grp., LLC, 716 F.3d 963, 971 (7th Cir. 2013) (quoting Hossack v. Floor Covering Assoc. ofjoliet, Inc., 492 F.3d 853, 859 (7th Cir. 2007)). "In other words, our job is to decide whether a highly charitable assessment of the evidence supports the jury's verdict or if, instead, the jury was irrational to reach its conclusion." May, 716 F.3d at 971. Rule 50(b) permits us either to enter judgment for the trial loser or to order a new trial.

         III. Analysis

         A. Residence

         The policy requires the house to be Thome's "residence" for him to be entitled to coverage for its loss. Member Select argues that the evidence at trial was insufficient for the jury to make that finding.

         The parties do not dispute that the factors relevant to determining residence are: (1) Thome's physical presence in the house; (2) whether Thorne had a subjective intent to reside there; and (3) Thome's access to the house and its contents. See Alexander v. Erie Ins. Exch., 982 F.2d 1153, 1159 (7th Cir. 1993). The district court instructed the jury accordingly.

         In its decision on Member Select's Rule 50 motion, the district court summarized the evidence concerning Thome's residence as follows:

[Thorne] testified that he intended to live at the Property. He also testified that he kept almost all his personal belongings at the Property, that his mail was delivered there, and that he went there often, even if only to pick up his mail. Furthermore, other than his brother, who had also lived at [the] house, [Thorne] was the only person with keys to the house. All this tends to show, ...

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