It is Valentine’s Day, my friends, so let’s turn to the fickle issues of love and property for today’s lesson on insurance coverage.  Why do we ever intertwine the two?  One is irrational, illogical, ephemeral and incapable of accurate definition or description.  (That would be love, for all you lawyers who are reading this.)  The other is tangible, describable, and a definable asset.  (That would be property, for all you insurance buffs who are reading today.)

An engagement ring represents both.  How does the law treat it then, when love goes awry?  When lovers get angry?  And when lovers seek to get even?  I get asked this question all the time.  The majority of jurisdictions say that the ring must be returned to the suitor who offered it when the engagement is broken.  The law treats marriage as a social contract, and therefore it applies principals of contract law.  The ring is considered collateral given in exchange for the promise to marry.  If the promise is broken, the ring must be given back.  It is not a gift.

But some clever policy holder – whose lover refused to return a rather expensive ring given to her for engagement – decided to look to his homeowner’s policy for coverage.  In the case of Smith v. Liberty Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 65 Pa. D. & C.4th 330, 332 (Com. Pl. 2002) aff’d sub nom. Smith v. Liberty Mut., 828 A.2d 409 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2003), a Pennsylvania gentlemen proposed to his out-of-town girlfriend and gave her a $12,000 ring.  The visit became contentious and she left.  She took the ring with her.  It could be because he called her a “hooker” and a “con artist” among other things.  But we weren’t there.

In any event, she refused to return his calls.  Her home and cellular telephone numbers were disconnected, her e-mail address stopped accepting incoming messages, and the plaintiff lost contact with her.  So he did as any jilted suitor would do:  he pulled out his homeowner’s policy, read it, and filed an insurance claim.  No. I am kidding again. He went to his lawyer, who talked him into this idea.

The court was presented with this questiondid the woman’s failure to return the ring, upon termination of the engagement, transform the gift into the object of a theft?

The answer was no.  It was not theft. The court drew a distinction between the rules on contract that are generally applied to cases where a suitor seeks the return of a ring after an engagement is ended, and a situation here where the suitor claimed theft.  It ruled:

 Because Ms. Rothschild neither “took and removed” the ring nor obtained it under false pretenses, the loss does not fall within the “theft” provision of the plaintiff’s insurance policy.

Further, because I do not believe that the failure to return an engagement ring following termination of the engagement constitutes a criminal offense, the plaintiff cannot recover under the policy by so characterizing Ms. Rothschild’s behavior.

Though I am not without sympathy for the plaintiff, who was surely left quite disillusioned by this entire affair, I simply do not see any basis upon which the plaintiff is entitled to recover for this loss from his insurance carrier.

Id., at 337-38 (emphasis added).  There you have it.  No theft.  No ring.  No coverage.  Everyone in Pennsylvania now knows Mr. Smith called his girlfriend a hooker.  So no dates, either.