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Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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Here’s the scenario: You’re walking down the street with a new suit — or dress — over your arm and run into a friend.

He/she says, referring to the item over your arm, “That’s a lovely suit/dress you’re wearing.”

Has the friend misspoken? Should he/she have instead referred to the item being “carried”?

Remembering that facts and circumstances matter, what do you think? Also remember the answer, because of the vagaries of the law, may not be as clear as one might think.

If a lawsuit pending in Chicago federal court is analogous, it will take a federal judge or jury to settle the definitional war over the meaning of the word “wear.”

Here’s the story behind the question.

Alan and Arylynn Freeman owned a 6.6-carat diamond ring.

Exercising admirable prudence, they decided to insure, among other pieces of jewelry, the ring.

The policy was expensive. The Freemans’ lawyer, Jeffrey Isaacson, estimated that coverage for the insured items, including the ring, was about $14,000 a year.

The ring, too, was expensive, appraised at roughly $275,000.

Thus, the stage is set for the event at the core of this dispute.

On May 22, 2018, Alan Freeman was reviewing the contents of his safe and came across the ring.

“It was filthy. So he said, ‘I’m going to clean the ring,’” said Isaacson.

Standing over a sink with the water running, Freeman held the ring, according to his legal affidavit, between his thumb and forefinger as he scrubbed it with a toothbrush.

Freeman’s lawyer said the faucet suddenly unleashed a stream of hot water that burned his client’s hand and caused him to drop the now-presumably-sparkling ring into the sink and down the you-know-what.

“It went literally down the drain,” said Isaacson.

Efforts to retrieve the ring went nowhere. So the Freemans turned to their insurer, Crestbrook Insurance Co., for compensation.

The insurance company rejected the claim. Litigation ensued.

The company based its rejection on an insurance policy exclusion. The policy states that the ring was not covered “unless, at the time of the loss, the jewelry is being worn by you or is contained in a locked safe at your residence.”

Clearly, the insurance company argued, the ring was not being worn at the time of the loss, so the company was not required to compensate the Freemans for their loss.

Armed with dictionary definitions of the word “wear,” Crestbrook filed a motion to dismiss the Freemans’ lawsuit before U.S. Judge John Kness.

It argued that wear means to “have something on one’s body as clothing, decoration or protection” or to “use for clothing adornment or assistance.”

The judge credited the insurance company’s argument as credible but not comprehensive because “‘being worn’ is ambiguous and requires factual exploration.”

He noted other definitions of wear include “to bear or have on the person” or “carry on the person.”

As an example, the judge cited the case of a hypothetical hiker who took off his sweatshirt because it was too hot and “draped it around his shoulders to carry it home.”

“A rational observer could find that the sweatshirt was ‘being worn’ by the hypothetical hiker without also needing to find” the sweatshirt was being worn “for the purpose of clothing,” the judge contended.

He concluded that the definition of the word wear is ambiguous. Because of that, the judge ruled, whether Alan Freeman was, within the meaning of the (insurance) policy wearing the ring at the time of the alleged loss presents a question that must be resolved by the factfinder.”

That will require an evidentiary hearing yet to be scheduled.

The court has set a July 27 date for a status hearing.

When it comes to the definition of the word wear, the Freemans have an advantage.

The judge has found the insurance policy’s wording to be ambiguous, not clear. Illinois law, which will guide the federal judge’s decision, requires that “ambiguous policy terms” be “strictly construed against the insurer.”

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-393-8251.

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